Rabbi rebukes pope over church's Holocaust silence

August 19, 1991|By William D. Montalbano | William D. Montalbano,Los Angeles Times

BUDAPEST, Hungary -- Over Vatican objections, the heirs of a Jewish community decimated by the Holocaust publicly rebuked visiting Pope John Paul II here yesterday for the silence of his church in Hungary during the tragic years of World War II.

In a behind-the-scenes scramble, Vatican diplomats urged a Hungarian rabbi to tone down his remarks, calling them an inappropriate prelude to Pope John Paul's subsequent ringing denunciation of anti-Semitism and a papal appeal for "reconciliation in justice" between Roman Catholics and Jews.

Vatican pressure triggered daylong debate among Jewish leaders who lost 600,000 of their kin in Nazi death camps.

At the end of it, Chief Rabbi Peter Kardos delivered the rebuke unchanged, according to one of the other nine Jewish leaders who accompanied him to a meeting last night with the pontiff.

Rabbi Kardos said that Pope John Paul -- clandestine seminary student Karol Wojtyla then -- was living in Poland during the war "and thus came to know of the terrible fate of European Jewry, for it was within Poland, in Auschwitz and Treblinka, that millions of Jews were murdered."

Jews lived peacefully in Hungary 1,000 years ago when Christianity arrived, Rabbi Kardos told Pope John Paul, but "in the following centuries this ideal situation changed, and unfortunately the church can be blamed for this to a certain extent.

"The most horrendous manifestation of this situation was in the middle of the 20th century, when 6 million of our Jewish brothers and sisters, among whom 600,000 Jews living in Hungary, were murdered.

"The highest leaders of the Catholic Church in Hungary at that time did not denounce publicly the deportation of hundreds of thousands ofJews.

"Had they broken the silence and ceased their indifference, who knows what would have happened?" Rabbi Kardos said in remarks delivered in the name of the Alliance of Jewish Congregations in Hungary.

Leaders of a Jewish community of 80,000 that is the largest in Eastern Europe had see-sawed last Monday over whether to change the remarks, according to Gusztav Zoltai, chairman of the association of Hungarian Jewish Communities.

"We were hesitating all day what to do. We decided to keep it. We think we owe that to the victims. We could not have left it out," he said.

Rabbi Kardos also complained about the presence of a convent of Carmelite nuns near Auschwitz and praised World War II Nuncio Archbishop Angelo Rotta, who worked tirelessly to save Jewish families, sometimes even forging baptismal certificates for them.

When the rabbi finished, the pope rejoined, with a characteristic wag of his forefinger: "I would like to remember what the illustrious representatives of the Catholic Church in Hungary, as well as in other countries, have done to defend the Jews within the possibilities allowed them by the circumstances. They committed themselves with courage."

The flurry about Rabbi Kardos' remarks obscured a powerful papal call to Hungarian Jews, whom he called a "blessed remnant" of God's people who had retained their faith despite "dark clouds of persecution . . . [and] hateful measures of discrimination . . . [in] those days of anguish and affliction."

Despite persecution and dispersion, Pope John Paul said, "the Jewish people . . . has preserved . . . its identity, its rites, its tradition, and indeed has made an essential contribution to the spiritual and cultural life of the world, particularly in Europe . . ."

Completing the third day of a five-day visit to Hungary, Pope John Paul proposed that Jews and Catholics in Hungary forge a common commitment "to engage in dialogue, to cooperate intensely in the sphere of human rights, religious education and the fight against anti-Semitism."

Since the collapse of communism, acts of renascent anti-Semitism have begun to stalk a politically and intellectually active Jewish community in Hungary, the first in Eastern Europe to erect a public memorial to its Holocaust dead.

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