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Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust

2/11/2007 - 7:00 AM PST

(Page 4 of 4)

decision not to go public, and hold that an explicit and authoritative condemnation by Pope Pacelli could have halted the genocide in time.

Amos Luzzatto, the former president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities said recently, "I am not aware of any public acts regarding the gas chambers and the mass murders in occupied Europe," and Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, recalled that "nothing was done to stop the train of Jewish deportees to Auschwitz from leaving Rome in 1943."

We must above all take into account the context of the times of World War II. The kindnesses, and above all the heroic deeds listed in Gilbert's book, were the stars that shone in the black sky of World War II, while a thick and poisonous fog permeated into the skins of an overwhelming majority of the European population.

The terrifying, indescribable horrors of the systematic extermination of innocent families, defenseless babies and children, women, young people and the old, dragged out of their homes and sent to death for the sole reason that they were born of the Jewish faith or heritage, took place in every town and city of occupied Europe.

As the historian, Henry Huttenbach, quoted by Gilbert, stated, the few that were saved "had the good fortune of encountering brave and decent people who sheltered them in an otherwise overwhelmingly unfriendly and disinterested Europe. It must be remembered that those who did escape camps, ran away into societies poisoned by anti-Semitic sentiments. The vast majority perished at the hands of collaborators with Germany's scheme to exterminate the Jews, whether Swiss border guards refusing entrance to anyone over 16, or the French police arresting foreign Jews, or Poles refusing to hide escapees from ghettos, or Russian partisans who killed Jews seeking to join them in their fight against the Germans."

I quote this statement not in any way to belittle the marvels of the magnificent deeds of all the righteous -- estimated at a total of at least 20,000 by Mordecai Paldiel, director of the Yad Vashem Museum-Monument -- where a forest of trees commemorating the righteous are planted. Rather, on the contrary, Huttenbach's appraisal is useful in helping us to realize what extraordinary courage was possessed by the righteous, living as they did, amid a sea of indifference and widespread, diabolic mass hysteria.

The great Pope John Paul II, who personally experienced the horrors of World War II, recognized the negative role played by centuries of anti-Jewish teachings by a part of the Catholic Church -- "the teaching of contempt," as defined by Jules Isaac, the historian and Holocaust survivor, during his significant encounter with Pope John XXIII.

This erroneous teaching prepared the ground of the mass subconscious where Nazi anti-Semitism took root making hatred of Jews acceptable and legitimizing or "justifying" their extermination. Despite pre-war Catholic declarations against anti-Semitism, disdain of Jews permeated sections of the Catholic hierarchy (as can be seen, for example, in pre-Vatican II issues of the authoritative periodical, CiviltÓ Cattolica) right up to the times of the ecumenical council and the historic "Nostra Aetate" document promulgated in 1965.

Surviving vestiges of anti-Judaic contempt in catechetical teaching and in the popular culture of certain anti-Semitic Catholic folk festivals (some of which were abolished only decades after Vatican II) centering around child "martyr saints" supposedly murdered by Jews who "used their blood for baking Passover matzot" (the Ritual Murder Canard that often provoked massacres of Jews as, for example, in the case of the St. Simonino Martyr festival in Trent) led Pope Wojtyla to call an International Theological Colloquium in the year 2000, on the history of "Anti-Judaism in Catholic Circles."

It was presided over by Cardinal Georges Cottier, theologian of the Pontifical family. This colloquium was followed by John Paul II's unforgettable and deeply moving act of requesting pardon of the Lord for the sins and errors "of the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church."

It is all true. It is true that the Catholic Church and the Vatican itself, hordes of priests and nuns, common people, Muslims and Orthodox Christians, believers and non believers alike, with extraordinary courage, risked their own lives to save those of Jews.

It is also true that the poison of anti-Semitism on the continent thrived on and was nourished by centuries of the teaching of contempt. And therefore we must all the more appreciate the enormous moral contribution of these righteous, recognizing them as rare lights that shone in the darkness of an epoch.

In conclusion: I believe the times are not yet ripe for an objective, historic evaluation of Pius XII's papacy in the period of the Second World War for two reasons in particular:

-- As already stated, the historical sources, the famous Secret Archives of Pius XII's papacy, are not yet available -- and even when they will be, we will have to await the elaboration of the new data by respected and trusted historians and researchers of diverse backgrounds. Perhaps, and in all likelihood, a definitive conclusion will never be reached. But with the passing of time, even the conclusion that no absolute conclusions can be found, will be less problematic and other, related, decisions will be less painful for all parties involved.

-- It should always be remembered that for survivors and their families, the torment of memories of the Shoah is still vivid and acute. These people rightly hold that had there been more righteous in the entire world at the time, and had the governmental and religious authorities had more moral courage, millions of lives could have been saved and the war won sooner.

But today we must look toward the future and grasp the many occasions offered to nourish reciprocal understanding. The multitude of beautiful and touching stories in Gilbert's book strengthen our hope and our faith in the human soul's capacity for goodness.

I would like to suggest two projects for the new generations.

-- Introduce the study of civic education in school programs to strengthen personal consciences and the critical capacities of individuals based on the ethical values of humanism and the highest values common to all religions. This could be supplemented by the teaching of the art of dialogue and of communicating with respect and without fear of the other.

-- Reading and teaching books such as this in school, pursuing further historical research on the rise and fall of totalitarian regimes in the past century, unveiling responsibilities, commemorating the victims, but also searching for the righteous yet to be discovered in this and other contexts, that they may continue to serve as examples and models of the possibilities for human choice under all circumstances.

These are some of the strategies that might effectively impede a future repetition, under a different guise, of the horrors of World War II, and the Shoah in particular.

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Holocaust, Heroes, Palmieri-Billig, Gilbert, War, Nazi, Jewish

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