On the TableOn the Table

On the Table

Diane Weber Bederman urges us to think again about Yad Vashem.

Diane Weber Bederman
4 minute read
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Divisions within the early Christian community, and beliefs adopted by some of its members, led to and gave justification for anti-Semitism among Christians over the centuries.

It is anti-Semitism that led to the mass murder of Europe's Jews and this building memorializes those deaths. Yad Vashem commemorates the other war – The War Against the Jews. Within its walls is the depiction of the worst acts ever committed against human beings; heinous acts that are at least in part the result of the culmination of thousands of years of Jews being accused of the death of Jesus. Without the context of anti-Semitism, this museum makes no sense.

Father de Souza asks if Pope Pius XII is being singled out for his failure to speak out against these acts. Yes. He is. He was the Father of Princes and Kings, Ruler of the World, Vicar on Earth of the Saviour Jesus Christ from 1939 to 1958.

No leader, religious or political, had a larger audience, with more influence over them, than the Pope. In 1938, representatives from 32 countries came to Evian, France, to discuss the Jews. All proffered their sympathies, but no one wanted the Jews. For Canada, none was too many. The German response was one of astonishment. The world was criticizing Germany for its treatment of the Jews,but noone wanted Hitler's Jews. No one. Hitler concluded that annihilating them would not cause a ripple. Someone with moral authority was needed to speak on behalf of "the other, the stranger." How different the world would be had the Pope, in 1939, called upon his flock around the world, 400 million strong, to insist that their countries open their doors to the Jews desperately looking for sanctuary. Once the war began, his was the only voice that could have reached inside the borders of Germany and influenced the conduct of the Catholics within to oppose the war against the Jews.

In January 1943, Giuseppe Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, forwarded a request for the Vatican to inquire whether neutral countries could grant asylum to Jews, to inform the German government that the Palestine Jewish Agency had 5,000 immigration certificates available, and to ask Vatican Radio to broadcast that helping Jews was an act of mercy approved by the Church. The Vatican, the Pope, declined.

Why is Pope Pius XII in the gallery with the banner "Why wasn't Auschwitz bombed?" Because the gallery questions why those in positions to help, didn't. When escapees of the camps begged the Allies to bomb the tracks to Auschwitz and they re-fused, the Pope was the one with the greatest moral authority to speak up. He didn't. Yet he was privy to all the information regarding the war against the Jews. Professor Robert S. Wistrich, a member of the Vatican-appointed International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission of six scholars examining the record of Pope Pius XII during the Shoah, wrote that "by the end of 1942, the Vatican was among the best-informed institutions in Europe concerning the Holocaust. Except for the Germans or perhaps British intelligence, few people were more aware of the local details as well as the larger picture."

This Pope, aware of the extent of the horror, chose not to cry out for the sake of the Jews from the balcony of St Peter's.

When the war ended, Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevy Herzog asked the Pope to call out to the churches, monasteries and Catholic families who had rescued Jewish children to return them. The Pope refused. Another opportunity to show his love of all of God's children was lost.

The Pope represented the last hope to the Jews. He had the most powerful voice in the Christian world, the world that was complicit in the murder of the Jews of Europe. History – the death of six million Jews – demands we question the response of the Pope as well as others. But his diaries were burned. Only his actions can speak for him.

His neutrality regarding the Allies and the Axis can be justified – it was war, with Catholics on both sides dying. But he was being asked to speak on behalf of millions who had no voice, no place to run or hide, and who were being murdered simply because they were born Jewish. That is the reason the Vatican and the Pope are in the Holocaust museum: so we can ask the question, Why?

Professor Wistrich wrote that Pius XII was neither "Hitler's pope" nor a "righteous Gentile." The polished diplomat ultimately won out over the voice of conscience in facing the formidable trial of the Holocaust. This is difficult to internalize. But if we are to teach our children well, then we must look back with eyes wide open.

In an earlier issue of Convivium, Calgary journalist Peter Menzies wrote: "Silent voices change the world." And not always for the better. Jesus taught that compromise is not compatible with his call.

I can understand the concerns of the Catholic students visiting Yad Vashem with Father de Souza regarding the portrayal of the Pope. But the lesson that needed to be conveyed was the fact that pow-erful and enduring strains of belief held by many Christians contributed historically to anti-Semitism. Such anti-Semitism was one of many undeniable sources for the Holocaust.

The plaque regarding Pope Pius XII in Yad Vashem is not a distraction. It speaks to the controversy sur-rounding the ultimate failure to act. Pope Pius XII is an integral part of the story. On March 12, 1998, Pope John Paul II formally apologized for the failure of Catholics to help Jews during the Holocaust. Pius XII was their spiritual leader.

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