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From Poland’s horrors to repentance


The current film “The Pianist” portrays the terrible tragedies of the Jewish community in Warsaw, Poland, from 1939 to 1944. In 1942 alone, 312,000 Jews were sent to their deaths in the gas chambers. More than 60,000 died in the desperate ghetto uprising in 1943. The film centers on an enterprising musician who somehow escaped the carnage that befell the entire Jewish community; he died last year after a long and successful career as a brilliant pianist.

One can’t avoid the thought while watching this film that Pope John Paul II was 22 in 1942 when the Germans murdered at least three-fourths of the Jews in Poland. The brutality of their treatment and the intense hatred the Germans had for the Jews is expressed in the film. The experience is shattering.

Was it providential that the first non-Italian pope in 500 years came from Poland? He is a man who has seen firsthand the destruction of an entire community within his country.

John Paul II has demonstrated more understanding for the Jewish community than any pope in history. He has seldom, if ever, publicly recalled his personal reactions to what happened. But he has recognized the state of Israel after all his predecessors, going back to 1948, refused to do so. He has tried to implement the Vatican II decree on Christian-Jewish relations published in 1965. He has taken several other initiatives.

But at the end of his pontificate, the residue of anti-Semitism, accumulated in centuries of disdain for Jews by Christians, still remains. It is sometimes not directly articulated, but expressed covertly. It is a sort of ethnic, tribal, class animosity that is more a vaguely inherited bias or prejudice, transmitted silently by an unseen, unspoken and odorless feeling.

One would like to think that Christian attitudes toward persons of Jewish ancestry are improving. And they are. But can there be a substantially improved way by which Christians and Jews can interact with more genuine friendliness and with true spiritual rapport?

The relationship between Catholics and Jews in America has witnessed great changes. The age of creating separate country clubs for Catholics, Protestants and Jews has gone forever, we hope. The tradition of having law firms based on religious affiliation is on the decline. Bias against Jews and Catholics at “WASP” organizations is less visible, if not totally gone.

But members of the Jewish community understandably wonder if another Warsaw could appear. Could a variation of it occur in one of the 48 Islamic nations? Could the tension and torment in the Middle East lead to something like the upheaval in Poland?

Jews continue to be restless around the world. Up to 100,000 of them migrated during the 1990s from Russia to Israel. There are now 90,000 Jews in Germany, up from 30,000 in 1990. Some 95 percent of them are from Russia. Earlier in February, the German government signed an accord that confers official status on Judaism, putting it on an equal footing with Catholic and Lutheran organizations. This means that the Jewish community will receive $3.24 million per year to support its programs.

Although anti-Semitism has been present in every generation of the Christian era, there is some hope that it could be withering away. The Polish pope has been unwavering. He remembers that Poland was once a sort of paradise for Jews. Eighty percent of all Jews in Europe have parents or grandparents who lived in Poland. That legacy was destroyed in 1942 and 1943. The pope would cry with grief and guilt if he viewed the film “The Pianist.”

The Catholic bishops of Germany in recent years pointed out the silence that led to the virtual extinction of the Jewish people in Germany. The French bishops in 1998 deplored the inadequate activity of the French bishops in view of the “planned extermination of the Jewish people by the Nazis.” The bishops of Switzerland and the Netherlands have issued comparable statements.

The U.S. Catholic bishops and their Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations under the able direction of Eugene Fisher may well be more effective than similar units around the world.

But there is always the problem of Israel. Feelings on this run strong and divided in the Catholic community, as they do everywhere. It is ironic indeed that the Jews in the nation created for them may be in more danger than they would be in any other country.

The contemporary scene in the Catholic church might well reflect more understanding of the Jewish people than at any other moment in history. These words from the “Declaration of Repentance,” issued by the Catholic bishops of France in September 1997 are still painfully true:

“We confess this sin. We beg God’s pardon, and we call upon the Jewish people to hear our words of repentance.”

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. His e-mail address is drinan@law.georgetown.edu

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 2003