Vatican 'apology' falls short...

March 24, 1998|By Chaim Landau

Sins between man and man will never be forgiven until the on who has committed the wrong gives the victim what he owes and appeases him If a person wronged another and the latter died before he could ask for forgiveness, he should take 10 people and say the following while they are standing before that person's grave. 'I have sinned against God the Lord of Israel and against this person by doing the following to him

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, "Laws of Repentance"

MORE than 50 years after the most horrendous act of man's inhumanity to Jews, Vatican officials recently released a statement that they claimed to be an act of repentance. In this, the church denied any association with sanctioned Christian theology that promoted and encouraged the spread of anti-Semitism for some 1,800 years.

The authors of the "apology" also suggest that a number of secular countries that failed to open their borders during World War II to Jewish refugees share in the blame. Specifically, the man of the time, Pope Pius XII, is given a clean spiritual bill of health for the stand he took and the courage he showed in the face of such overwhelming fascist evil.

It is almost as if they had quoted from the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano of Oct. 25-26, 1943: "As is well known, the august Pontiff, after having vainly tried to prevent the outbreak of war has not desisted for one moment from employing all the means in his power to alleviate the suffering which, whatever form it may take, is the consequence of this cruel conflagration the universal and paternal charity of the Supreme Pontiff knows neither boundaries nor nationality, neither religion nor race."

An atrocity

Until that is, during that fateful time in late October 1943, when, under the very windows of the Vatican, some 1,800 Jews from Rome were rounded up by the Nazis. Many of whom were transported to Auschwitz and murdered by poison gas.

In a wonderfully documented book titled "The Italians and the Holocaust," Susan Zuccotti, writes that Pope Pius XII had hardly condemned any specific German actions against the Roman Jews or warned others of pending danger.

If the pope had publicly said what he knew -- and from thousands of Catholic representatives around Europe, together with diplomatic pouches, he knew very well the plans of the Nazi roundups -- "if he had declared clearly and unequivocally that the Nazis were systematically deporting Jews, without exception, in every country they occupied, and that once they had begun in any individual country there was no reason to believe that they would limit the raids to just a few cities, many more people would have abandoned their homes and hidden."

Sadly, many ordinary Italian Catholics sheltered Jews without any papal guidance or support. Imagine the greater numbers of Italian Catholic saviors who would have rallied together in defense of the Jews at a few words of encouragement from the pope.

Furthermore, we must remember that this was a time that reports about death camps were reaching the civilized western leaders, to much disbelief and cynicism. A cry of help from Pope Pius XII would have put the world on notice.

Judaism demands that we try to find mitigating circumstances always on behalf of the accused. So why did the pope remain so quiet? Possible answers include that (a) he was "pathologically afraid" of bolshevism -- he condemned Russian aggression in Finland while ignoring Nazi aggression in Catholic Poland; (b) he might have feared German reprisals against Catholics in German-occupied countries; (c) he thought Hitler was toying with the idea of setting up a competing pope -- much as during the Middle Ages, France established its own pope, competing for dominance and power with the one in Italy.

Papal failure

Pope Pius did nothing to help the Jews. He was certainly aware of thousands of Jews hidden in Catholic institutions throughout Italy, and he did not oppose this silent policy. But neither did he encourage those who put their lives on the line to save Jewish lives.

As an act of repentance, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, one of the most authoritative rabbis in Jewish philosophy and law, insists the sinner specify the wrongs for which he or she seeks forgiveness.

What we have from the Vatican is a generalized statement crafted in a public vacuum that blames no one, prevaricates the facts, states no specific wrongs and fails to address the unwarranted deaths of so many innocent lives that could have been saved by a few loud public words from this supreme religious leader.

It is indeed a historical statement, but the statement does no justice to history.

This is an excerpt of an article written by Chaim Landau, rabbi at the Ner Tamid Congregation in Baltimore. It originally was published in the Baltimore Jewish Times.

Pub Date: 3/24/98

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