• Home
  • Parashah Insights
  • Ask the Rabbi
  • Festivals & Fasts
  • Articles
  • Books
  • About
  •  

    Response to, “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah”

    Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple at a gathering hosted by the St Thomas More Society and the NSW Society of Jewish Jurists and Lawyers in Sydney on 29 July, 1999. The occasion marked the publication by the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jews of, “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah”.

    [Rabbi Apple in his address below refers to a speech delivered at the gathering by His Eminence Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.]

    Rabbi Apple with Cardinal Cassidy

    May I begin by thanking you, Your Eminence, for giving us the opportunity of welcoming you to our midst once again in Sydney and hearing your important and sensitive paper. Personally, and I am certain on behalf of both the Christian and Jewish communities, I pay tribute to you as a distinguished Australian who strides the world stage – a man of religion who gives religion a good name. Your contribution to Catholic-Jewish understanding over many years has, in particular, helped to ensure that we could see in each other the face of a brother.

    I am confident that you in turn are proud of the Australian Catholic bishops for their achievement in Catholic-Jewish relations. We in the Jewish community appreciate the cordiality of our meetings with the bishops and the pleasant, constructive friendship which we share. In addition we record once again our admiration for the 1992 Guidelines for Catholic-Jewish Relations issued by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, which was and remains in so many ways a landmark and an example to other communities.

    The work of Catholic-Jewish understanding is developing under a Pope whose genuine concern for a healthy relationship with the Jewish people has been often and amply demonstrated. This is a Pope who has made many journeys; symbolically his and the Church’s longest journey was the one which covered the short distance between the Vatican and the Great Synagogue in Rome, with the unambiguous message that arose out of that historic occasion. (Another great journey will take the Pope to Israel in the year 2000; this was announced a few days ago by the representative of the Holy See in Israel.)

    Pope John Paul II did not, however, begin the rapprochement with the Jewish world. The series of epoch-making statements referred to in tonight’s paper began years before, under earlier Popes. True, Church statements such as these frequently use a special type of vocabulary which Jews find difficult. They have not always gone as far or as fast as Jews, and maybe history, would have preferred. But the goodwill and the achievement are palpable.

    An aspect of the achievement which has not been mentioned this evening but carried immense significance is the assurance that there has been an irreversible change in church attitudes in relation to conversionist activities targeting the Jewish people. We record with satisfaction that Catholic policy, as reiterated to us as recently as our last meeting with the representatives of the Catholic bishops, is that the legitimacy and authenticity of Judaism and for that matter other expressions of religious conscience, are axiomatic in church thinking.

    I turn now to tonight’s major address. It contained spoken nuances which were not necessarily so clear in the printed document itself: for example, the recognition that just as the Jewish people is diverse so is the Catholic Church, and there is a range of Catholic views on some subjects which will take time to stabilise. Further, tonight’s emphasis on the fact that the document does not simply offer an apology but uses the Hebrew term teshuvah - repentance – means a great deal to Jews who know that the process of repentance must begin in the heart, use speech as it issues in prayer, and manifests itself in charity of word and deed.

    One or two passages in the Cardinal’s paper were, however, a little unfortunate. I have to say that I have a problem with the sentence, “The members of the Church today cannot be considered responsible individually for what happened in past centuries, no more than Jews today can be considered guilty for what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem 2000 years ago”. The analogy has its problems; I see it as an implication that the Jewish community of 2000 years ago bore guilt for the arrest, trial and death of Jesus, when in fact the Vatican Council Declaration is careful to negate any such guilt.

    The paper we have heard this evening has focussed on the document entitled “We Remember – A Reflection on the Shoah”. The document has been criticised – not without justification – but it is important to quote Professor Yehuda Bauer of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who says, “The document has to be evaluated positively. It relates to the Holocaust as a major tragedy – the major tragedy – of this century; it repeats the present Pope’s stand against antisemitism and it pledges to continue the church’s fight against antisemitism”…

    However, in the interest of the ongoing dialogue and the search to find the answer to Pontius Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”, I hope I may be allowed to remark that neither the original document nor even tonight’s impressive paper are entirely satisfactory in relation to two major issues.

    The distinction between religious anti-Judaism and racial antisemitism we understand. We accept that both the document and tonight’s paper recognise that doctrinal anti-Judaism sowed seeds from which grew the noxious weed of secular Nazi antisemitism. However, the distinction between the two phenomena is not in fact so clear-cut. There is no question but that some Catholic leaders, teachers and lay people showed courage to care – both moral and physical courage – and Cardinal Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, is a shining example. Pope Pius XII also saved Jewish lives, and there were acts of humanity and heroism in many other parts of the church.

    Nonetheless there seems no doubt that, as Professor Bauer says, “The vast majority of individual priests and Catholic faithful were completely indifferent or downright hostile to Jews”. Some were cold and callous and even regarded Jews as deserving their fate because they had not accepted Jesus. The bishops of Slovakia, for example, were prepared only to defend Jews who had converted to Christianity.

    When Rabbi Weissmandl told the Papal Nuncio in Bratislava that the innocent blood of thousands of children was at stake, the Nuncio replied, “There is no such thing as the innocent blood of Jewish children. All Jewish blood is guilty, and the Jews must die because that is their punishment for that sin”.

    Even in Australia in the 1940s the Catholic Herald gratuitously advised that Jews should accept baptism to save their lives. When Rabbi Israel Porush and Dr JM Machover went to see the apostolic delegate to ask the Pope to intervene on behalf of European Jews faced with annihilation, they were given the impression that church concern was primarily for Catholic priests and teachers in Poland and they were asked that, as the Jews were said to control the press, the Jewish people should do something to save the Catholic priests.

    The second major issue which His Eminence has assured us remains on the agenda is the question of the personal attitude of Pope Pius XII. We appreciate the implication that popes, whilst infallible in some things, do not always decide or act wisely. Yes, Pius’ acts of assistance to Jews are known and recorded: but so are the countless occasions when he kept silent when conscience would surely have said, “Speak!” Further, there were occasions when he acted, spoke and wrote in ways which he must have known would give comfort to the forces of destruction.

    It is not for Jews or other outsiders to give advice to the Catholic Church, especially when Pius XII is being considered for sainthood. But though his piety and spirituality are not an issue, so many questions about his wartime policy remain unanswered, and it is no disrespect for Jews to say that the thought of speedy action in relation to his beatification causes grave disquiet.

    There is an old question which they ask about Jews – the question of why, when you ask a Jew a question, they answer with another question. The answer to that question is, “Why not”?

    This Jew, proud of many decades of growing personal friendship and collegiality with so many leaders and members of the Catholic community, must be forgiven for asking questions tonight.

    He must also be forgiven for asking members of the Catholic and indeed the entire Christian community to understand that Jewish experience has very often echoed the words of Jeremiah: “Look and see if there be any pain like my pain!” More than fifty years have passed since the Holocaust, but we cannot help ourselves. Even those who were personally not there, even those born after the event, are part of a hurting people. We cannot think of the Holocaust without shuddering. The pain will not let us go.

    We cannot shake it off, but we recognise gratefully and humbly that some have been sensitive and, may I say, mature enough to seek to feel the hurt with us in these last decades. His Holiness Pope John Paul II has given his Church a remarkable example of leadership in his understanding that the Holocaust has diminished us all. You, Your Eminence, have played a unique role in ensuring that this feeling would permeate the furthest reaches of the Church.

    But questions remain. The anxiety will not dissipate for a long time, if at all. But tonight the opportunity of speaking with openness, frankness, dignity and humanity has enriched us all. I thank you for the privilege of being part of the experience.

    Comments are closed.