Wartime Pope Has a Huge Fan: A Jewish Knight
By PAUL VITELLO
LONG BEACH, N.Y. — At home here on Long Island, he is Gary L. Krupp, medical equipment dealer, now retired after a career of ups and downs. He shares one car and a small house in a no-frills neighborhood with his wife, Meredith, and wryly describes himself as “an average schlemiel, just a Jewish kid from Queens.”
At the Vatican, he is known as Commendatore Gary Krupp, Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great. For short, the Swiss Guard and cardinals address him as “Your Excellency.”
It is a compelling tale in itself: how Mr. Krupp became only the seventh Jewish papal knight in history, dubbed by Pope John Paul II in 2000 for persuading American manufacturers to donate $12 million worth of high-tech medical equipment to an Italian hospital.
But the more curious and complicated story is the transformation Mr. Krupp has undergone since. With no previous training or special interest in history, he has emerged as the Vatican’s most outspoken Jewish ally in a heated debate at the crux of tensions between Roman Catholic and Jewish leaders and historians: whether Pope Pius XII, the pontiff during World War II, did as much as he could have to save Jews from the Holocaust.
Mr. Krupp, 62, has raised enough money through the Pave the Way Foundation, a nonprofit organization he founded in 2002, to travel the globe, hire researchers to scour historic documents, sponsor a three-day symposium in Rome and publish four editions of a glossy, illustrated volume of evidence supporting his view that Pius XII spared no effort to save the lives of persecuted Jews.
He has pressed his case in a recent op-ed article for The New York Post, and in interviews with conservative Catholic television programs and Web sites, which have cited him as an expert on Pius.
And in a special audience at the papal summer residence in September 2008, Pope Benedict XVI thanked Mr. Krupp for bringing attention to “what Pius XII achieved for the Jews.”
Historians and religious leaders around the world have taken increasing notice of Mr. Krupp’s work — some with alarm, some with pleasure — because his advocacy has coincided with efforts within the Vatican to promote the canonization of Pius. Pope Benedict nudged that process forward in December by affirming Pius’s “heroic virtues” and pronouncing him “venerable,” a step on the path toward sainthood.
The controversy over Pius’s wartime conduct had stalled his elevation for so many years that Pope Benedict’s action shocked scholars on both sides of the debate. And while agreeing on little else, some in both camps credit Mr. Krupp for breaking the logjam.
“I wrote 10 books about Pius XII, but in all these years I never knew how to shake things up for the cause like this wonderful man, Mr. Krupp,” said Sister Margherita Marchione, a professor emerita at Fairleigh Dickinson University who is considered the foremost defender of Pius outside the Vatican.
Deborah Dwork, a professor of Holocaust history at Clark University, put it another way: “Pope Benedict would not have had the chutzpah to go forward with the veneration process if not for this P.R. work Gary Krupp does.”
In a dispute decades long, the church has maintained that Pius XII supported efforts throughout the war to hide Jews or help them escape, but worked behind the scenes to avoid retaliation from Nazi and Italian Fascist authorities.
Holocaust scholars, who consider Pius, with his worldwide network of diplomats and clergy, to be among the first world leaders to have grasped the scope of the Jewish persecution, have asked why he did not condemn it publicly. But most consider that and other questions unanswerable until the Vatican opens the complete archives of Pius’s papacy. Although a selection of those papers has been published, the Vatican has kept most off limits to outside researchers.
How Mr. Krupp happened onto this muddy battlefield is hard to explain, even for Mr. Krupp, a husky man who sometimes seems almost possessed, bounding up and down the stairs of his split-level house to retrieve copies of documents or books to make his points.
“Believe me, I never dreamed I would be defending a man who, when I was growing up, we believed he was a Nazi sympathizer,” he said.
He says he takes his faith seriously, though he was never very active in his synagogue, or a member of Jewish organizations. His rabbi, Barry Dov Schwartz of Temple B’Nai Sholom in Rockville Centre, called him “a bit of a stubborn guy, whom I happen to be very fond of,” but declined to comment on Mr. Krupp’s efforts on behalf of popes.
By Mr. Krupp’s account, that work evolved “organically.” A friend, a Long Island priest, got him involved with the Italian hospital in need of equipment.
Being knighted thrust Mr. Krupp into the ranks of some of the world’s richest and most prominent people, living and dead — Bob Hope and Rupert Murdoch included — who received the knighthood of St. Gregory the Great for serving the church in some way. Unlike the vast majority of them, however, Mr. Krupp said he saw his elevation as an opportunity to become a conduit between the Catholic Church and the world. In 2005, he brokered an agreement with the Vatican Library to lend a rare set of manuscripts by the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides to the Israel Museum. And gradually he decided he liked promoting interreligious understanding more than he liked selling medical equipment.
His Pave the Way Foundation became a full-time occupation in 2005, around the time a friend at the Vatican suggested that he might help clear up misunderstandings between Catholics and Jews about Pius. Mr. Krupp began collecting and underwriting research.
“Did you know Pius XII saved more than 860,000 Jews from the death camps? I mean, I never knew that before. It’s character assassination — a shanda — that so many Jews say he was an anti-Semite,” said Mr. Krupp, using a Yiddish word for disgrace.
The assessment of Mr. Krupp’s work among many scholars and leaders of long-established Jewish organizations has been equally harsh.
Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg, associate director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, called Mr. Krupp’s mission “a campaign of misinformation.”
Professor Dwork said Mr. Krupp’s research was “amateurish, worse than amateurish — risible.” More disturbing, she said, it seems to have emboldened some in the Vatican to push harder for Pius XII’s canonization.
He may be well-meaning, but his lack of experience in international affairs and historical research makes Mr. Krupp highly vulnerable to being manipulated by factions inside the Vatican, she said.
Several historians said the 860,000 figure that Mr. Krupp cited appeared frequently in biographies of Pius XII, but had never been documented.
The Rev. John T. Pawlikowski, a Catholic priest who is a founding member of the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and a professor of social ethics at the University of Chicago, said the Vatican was “discrediting itself by associating itself with this kind of questionable scholarship.”
Mr. Krupp has heard it all. In 2008, several historians called to ask him to cancel his three-day conference in Rome, which ultimately drew many Vatican-friendly scholars but few with independent credentials.
One caller, Paul O’Shea, who has written extensively about Pius XII, tried to warn Mr. Krupp that proponents of canonization might be trying to use him. He urged Mr. Krupp to wait for the Vatican to open its files, and for scholars to complete their work, before reaching conclusions.
Mr. Krupp thanked him for his advice and ignored it.
“Listen to me: Pius XII was the greatest hero of World War II,” Mr. Krupp said recently. “He saved more Jews than Roosevelt, Churchill and all the rest of them combined. We should not let him be an issue between Catholics and Jews.”
He added: “And I predict this: Historians are never going to solve this whole problem. There will always be questions.”
In the debate over Gary Krupp, too, there will always be questions. Why is he doing this? How has he marshaled deep-pocketed support for his foundation, which has an annual budget of about $500,000 and pays him and his wife a combined $140,000 a year? (Its board includes New York entrepreneurs and Wall Street managers, most of them Jewish.)
And what is it like to start your day in a house where your ceiling needs painting, and end your day, jet-lagged, in a house with ceilings by Michelangelo?
Meredith Krupp contemplated that question recently and answered with a koan-like reference to the white feather that appears mysteriously in the opening and closing frames of the movie “Forrest Gump.”
“It’s just like that feather,” she said. “It just goes and goes where it goes.”