John Paul II and anti-semitism, a personal experience - Jean Stern
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Jean Stern

«First they marked them with a particular sign. Then pushed in ghettos, in isolated quarters. Then brought to the gas chambers, bringing them death, just because they were sons of this people». John Paul II revoked, with these words the ordeal of the Jews in Poland during the course of the Second World War. He knows by personal experience all that happened then: Auschwitz-Birkenau, the head train stations of death coming from Holland, France, Italy and other countries, and situated just about thirty kilometers from his native Wadowice.

Before 1940, there was a flourishing Jewish community, that disappeared all together. The Jews were not the only ones to suffer at that time. «But amongst all these inhuman measures - wrote the Pope on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the war - there is one that will always remain a disgrace for humanity: the "planned barbarism" which was ruthless against the Jewish people. They had to undergo incredible privations and brutalities».

An anti-Christian fury

The fury undertaken to eliminate all the Jews, men and women, children and the elderly, was a measure that was not only anti-Semitic and anti-human, but also specifically anti-Christian. As a last resort, it aims to eliminate every sign, every trace, which would have reminded those who were part of the Aryan race, considered superior, that they had a need of salvation brought by the «Jew, Jesus of Nazareth» (June 24, 1988).

According to Christian faith, the Savior of humanity and the Founder of the Church, is not but the Messiah promised to the Jewish people and announced by the Scriptures of these people. Furthermore, between the Church and the Jewish people, there exists, according to John Paul II, a relationship «which could be defined by the just title "a parentage" very real and true, which we have only with this religious community, despite our numerous relations with other religions of the world and in particular with Islam». With the other religions there are similarities, with the Jewish one, there is a common origin which dates back to the intervention of God in history. The Holy Pontiff concludes: «This "tie" can be defined as "sacred" for as much as it is rooted in the mysterious will of God» (October 28, 1985).

It is even true that the majority of the members of the Jewish people do not recognize in Jesus there Messiah, a Messiah Son of God, which the Church has the duty to preach to the entire world, just as the Pope reminded in the course of his first encounter with a group of Jews, on March 12, 1979. All this does not detract from the fact that the Jews remain the people of the Alliance, of an Alliance which God has never renounced. This latter point he said and repeated (November 17, 1980 October 10, 1985; etc. etc.) soliciting the stupor of many, who did not understand how the Jewish people could still remain beneficiaries of the Alliance. It remains simply because God is infinitely faithful, just as the Virgin sang in her Magnificat. With regards to the members of the other races, they become beneficiaries of the same Alliance beginning with the moment in which, through Baptism, they become members of the Body of Christ: «the pagans are admitted to the same heredity, members of the same body, associated to the same promise, in Jesus Christ, through the Gospel» teaches John Paul II following the footprints of Saint Paul (October 9, 1988: cfr. Ef. 3, 6).

Anti-judaism and anti-semitism

Unfortunately the relationships between Christians and Jews have often been everything but good. In the centuries of Christianity, the Jews were accused of imaginary crimes, like the sacrifice of ritual. They wanted to impose Baptism on them with force. The were expelled from France England, Spain. There were real massacres, in particular in the course of the first crusades. Beginning from the XIX century, they also suffered the accusation of racial order: the Jews would have been men of an inferior race. Religious anti-Judaism transformed itself in this way into anti-Semitism. It is noteworthy that the Second Vatican Council deplored all the manifestations «those which were the eras and the perpetrators». As well, the Council not only considers the persecution of the Jews as an evil, but it reaches the point of recognizing that in the past, some Christians were also to blame.

By doing this, the Council did not take a road that is altogether new. There exist some precedents. In the V-VI centuries, Pope S. Gregory the Great took the defense of the Jews of Terracina, who were forced by the Christians to move their Synagogue, just as some Jews of Arles and of Marseilles who were forced to Baptism. Beginning from the XI Century, some pontifical bulls were published which aimed to protect, amongst others, the Jews against the accusation of "sacrificial ritual." And closer to us, at the beginning of the XX century, S. Pio X protested against the pogroms. In the 1928, the Holy Office condemned anti-Semitism, a condemnation reiterated by Pio XI in 1938.

Whoever the Perpetrator is

A simple apology could bring an end to certain revocations of the past. John Paul II prefers to recognize that there were even some negative measures taken. In the course, for example, of his visit to the Synagogue in Rome, April 13, 1986, after having recited the passage of Nostra Aetate on the diverse manifestations of anti-Semitism, whoever was the author, he repeated, in fact underlining the last words:«I repeat: "by whoever"». Whoever is the author. Effectively, between the authors of the deplorable acts there figure some Popes and also some Saints. In IV century, Saint Ambrogio impeded the justice of the Jews of Callinicon on the Eufrate, where the Christians had devastated their synagogue. John Paul II has recently recognized, that, on this point, the Saint of Milan was not wise. In the XVI century, Pope Paul IV closed the Jews of Rome in a ghetto. But, a more grave fact: a certain mentality, particularly diffused, tended to see the Jews, as perverted beings, victims of a malediction. Had they not in fact put Jesus Christ to death? It was in this way that the teaching of the catechism of the Council of Trent was forgotten, which attributed the death of Christ to all the sinners, whoever they were. It is unquestionable that this kind of mentality contributed to the passivity of too many spirits in front of the Nazi anti-Semitism.

In the Spirit of the Jubilee

John Paul II observes a change of mentality. He notes that the memory of the «terrible persecutions undergone by the Jews in the various periods of history opened, in the end, many eyes and disturbed many hearts».

This memory, according to the Pope, must open the hearts of Catholics, committing them to choose the road of reparation. He recognized that «the suffering of the Jews are for the Catholic Church a reason of sincere pain, especially when we think of the indifference and at the same time to the resentment, which, in particular historical circumstances, divided Jews and Christians» (August 8, 1987). «The heavy claim derived from the slaughter of the Jewish people must be a permanent appeal for the repentance of all Christians: so that we can win every form of anti-Semitism and in this way establish a relationship with our brother people of the ancient alliance».

The words just cited were spoken by the Pope to the Ambassador of Germany in 1990, the country where the process of "planned barbarism" had its inception. Certainly, not all the Germans bear in them part of the responsibility of the Holocaust. Some, like the Blessed Bernard Lichtenberg, from the Cathedral of Berlin under nazism, courageously lost their lives by taking the defense of the victims. And even less can we accuse the Christian people in their totality. The Holy Father, yet speaks of a slaughter. It is a fact that a slaughter ends by inflicting on the property of an entire family by guilt of one of its members. In that great family which is the Church where the rule is bringing the bundle of each other, the entire family is expected to end the slaughter. The Church feels more indebted to liberate its heart with regards to the wounds inflicted on the same people from which Jesus Christ came from, very often from members of the Christian people who declared themselves of Christ. Currently, there exist some Jews who recognize in Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah, Son of God. The slaughter which we just touched upon too often impedes them from recognizing the Church founded on the Messiah.