Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
There have been few times in the two thousand years of Christian Jewish relations when Jews have shed genuine tears at the death of a Pope;when Pope Jon Paul II died, I – and many other Jews – cried. Building on the work of Pope John XXIII has done more to improve on Catholic Jewish relations than any Pope in history. And Jew should react with joy at the beautification of Pope John Paul II on Sunday May 1st.
It is a paradox of the Holocaust that the innocent feel guilty and the guilty innocent.
Nowhere is this paradox more pronounced that in the post-Holocaust behavior of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II made confronting the Shoah and the fight against antisemitism a centerpiece of his papacy. He brought Roman Catholic-Jewish relations to a new level of respect. Like his predecessor Pope John XXIII, Pope John Paul II was directly touched by the Holocaust and has assumed responsibility for its memory. Both men were changed by the history they experienced and as leaders changed the institution they headed, even an institution so conservative and seemingly so reticent to change as the Roman Catholic Church.
Pope John XXIII accepted the ongoing life of the Jewish people after the arrival of Jesus rejecting supercessionism, the doctrine that Christianity had come to replace Judaism and thus that there was no reason for the people of Israel to remain Jews; he eliminated the charge of deicide and removed it from Catholic teaching and liturgy, he stopped to greet Jews leaving a Rome Synagogue on Sabbath, yet neither he nor his two immediate successors accepted the renascent State of Israel, the very form of Jewish life since 1948. He had come to terms with 1878 years of Jewish life – the years of Jewish exile from 70 C.E. to 1948
Enter Pope John Paul II who as a young man in Poland witnessed the Shoah. Three million Jews of Poland were killed in the Holocaust. After the war, Polish cities, which were once the home of large and thriving Jewish communities, were bereft of Jews and the Pope’s hometown was the site of a large ghetto whose Jewish population was deported to death camps. As a young university student, and when he worked in the theater Karol Wojtyla had Jewish friends. Some remained his friends throughout his long and distinguished life. As a recently ordained young priest, he was asked to baptize children born of Jewish parents who had been raised by Polish Catholics, who had sheltered them during the Shoah, thereby saving their lives. When their Jewish parents did not return after the war, the Polish family that had raised them lived them as their own children and wanted to raise them in their faith. On these occasions, the future Pope insisted that Jewish children first be informed of their Jewish origins and only then could they be baptized. It was an act of courage – political, religious and pastoral in post-war Poland, a deed of profound respect for memory. It was not an act popular with his congregants who were unable to tell young Jewish children of their origins during the war for such information could be lethal of both the child and his adoptive family, and who were reluctant to do so after the war for fear of reprisal from the local population and for complicating their relationship.
As Pope John Paul II, he recognized the State of Israel. He visited a synagogue for prayer and treated the Rabbi and the Congregation of Rome with every religious courtesy. Instead of dividing the world between Christians and Jews, he spoke of the commonality of religious traditions/ He spoke with reverence of the Torah. He spoke out against antisemitism again and again. He visited the sites of Jewish death and acknowledged on numerous occasions the centrality of the Shoah.
His visit to Poland in 1979 was perhaps the moment for which he was elected Pope. He delegitimated Communism in Poland and played a pivotal role in its demise. And Communism was the strongest enemy of Jewish nationalism and of Judaism.
In March 2000, Pope John Paul II visited Israel – the State and not just the Holy Land. From the moment he arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv to the moment he departed, it was clear to Roman Catholics and Jews, and to the international media, that this was an extraordinary gesture of reconciliation in the shadow not only of two millennia of Christian antisemitism but in the massive shadow of the Holocaust. Even if Pope John Paul II did not say everything that could be said – he apologized for the antisemitism of Christians not of Christianity—his bowed head at Yad Vashem and his note of apology inserted into the Western Wall said more than could be said by words alone. In the Third Millennia, The Pontiff was determined that Roman Catholics act differently, behave differently and believe differently. An eyewitness to the Holocaust, he had come to make amends. He took all-important steps to make certain that the full authority of the papacy was brought to bear against antisemitism. His theology was quite simple: antisemitism is a sin against God. It is anti-Christian. These are welcome words to every Jew and one could sense their power by the manner in which the Israelis received Pope John Paul II. Even ultra-Orthodox Rabbis, opposed by conviction to anything ecumenical and raised on the stories transmitted through the generations of confrontations between Priests and Rabbis, were deeply impressed by the Papal visit to the offices of the Israel’s Chief Rabbis.
Pope John Paul II’s record was not perfect. He attempted to canonize Pope Pius XII, the war-time Pontiff, he did not open the Vatican Archives from World War II for researchers on the Holocaust to let the true record of he Vatican be known, he canonized Pope Leo IX who had forbidden he return of a forcibly baptized Jewish child, he welcome Yasir Arafat and President Kurt Waldheim to the Vatican, the former before he recognized Israel and the later after his Nazi past was exposed and he had flamed Austrian antisemitism during his presidential campaign.. The most charitable thing that can be said of his handling of the pedophile scandal in the Church was that it was inadequate. Jewish tradition teaches that “there is no righteous person without sin.”
Yet none of this can obscure the overriding substance of his papacy. He demonstrated that true religiosity – devout, orthodox and pious as it may be—need not demonizes another religion and disparager other faiths and the right of another religion to worship their God as they believe. The innocent ones who felt guilty have led contemporary Roman Catholicism to renounce antisemitism and to accept the integrity of the ongoing religious life of the Jews. This behavior should serve as a model for Jews and Muslims as well as for other religious leaders as to the ethical requirements of religious doctrine.
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April 6, 2011 | 4:43 pm
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
Andrew Stevens in collaboration with Meir Doron, Rebel with a Cause: The Amazing True Story of Urban Partisans in World War II.
As I was finishing Andrew E, Stevens’ memoir Rebel with a Cause, I received an email from a former colleague of mine reminding me of a promise I had made to write about Jews saving Jews during the Holocaust. She had long been contending that one of the major untold stories of the Holocaust and some of its most important unsung heroes were those Jews who put their lives at even more acute risk to rescue other Jews.
Yad Vashem had set the standard, a high standard indeed, of Holocaust heroism. The government of Israel recognizes and honors those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. The requirements are stringent. A committee, chaired by a former Supreme Court Justice examines the evidence; the nominee must be a non-Jew must have saved a Jew at the risk of his life without receiving any form of compensation, any expectation of compensation. Diplomats are routinely not eligible since they enjoyed Diplomatic Immunity their lives were seldom at risk. Raoul Wallenberg was one of the few exceptions,
Because the designation by Yad Vashem is so significant and the tile so exalted “Righteous Among the Nations,” many people, scholars and layman alike, overlook the important role that Jews played in saving their own.
Zionist histories exalted other Jews, those who resorted to arms – as if that was the only honorable option. It praises those who despite impossible odds fought for Jewish honor in the ghettos of Warsaw and Bialystok even in the death camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor. They never expected their battle to result in victory, but their efforts were a moral triumph even if they resulted in the mass murder of other Jews. Yom Hashoah is formally designated in Israel as “Yom Hashoah V’hagevurah,” Holocaust and Heroism – Resistance – Day as if the two are comparable.
Historians of other nations recognize self defense and people assisting one another as a form of resistance. Werner Rings the Swiss historian said that in every nation under German occupation there were four stages to Resistance. Symbolic and personal resistance: maintaining dignity, identity and continuity; Polemical resistance: disseminating information regarding the German crimes; Defensive resistance, protecting and aiding one’s own, and only later, much later armed resistance.
For Jews acting out of the long experience of Jewish history there were ways to deal with oppression and oppressors. Jews were more practiced in the art of symbolic and spiritual resistance. They initially attempted to thwart Nazi intentions by non-violent means, stopping short of direct confrontation in which Jews would inevitably be overpowered.
Jews were masters at polemical resistance, newspapers and diaries, pamphlets and even major historical enterprises of documentation were present in almost all of the ghettos. Artists documented the crimes through the tools of their profession. historians by writing history, poets by their poetry, artists through their artistry, rabbis through teaching Torah and writing responza of Jewish law.
But not only professionals were committed to documentation. Children kept diaries. People with no professional training photographed what was happening and kept meticulous records. Leaders did their part. In Kovno, Lithuania, Abraham Tory kept a detailed diary of the daily events of the Jewish Council. Adam Czerniakow, the leader of the Warsaw Judenrat, kept a detailed diary and wrote in that diary until his final hour. Hirsch Kidushin took photographs in Kovno using a clandestine camera as did other Jewish photographers in the ghettos.
Jews were well schooled in the ways to assist one another. Ghettos had house committee, welfare drives, soup kitchens, innovative efforts to help one another even under the most desperate of conditions against the most determined of enemies.
Andrew Stevens and Meir Doron have collaborated on an important book that retells the final months of World War II German occupied Budapest Hungary through the eyes of a young Jew who worked as a forger producing the documents so essential to saving Jewish lives and then distributed these documents despite the dangers that were his daily lot.
Anyone familiar with the Holocaust knows the basic outlines of Raoul Wallenberg’s story; still, permit me a brief reiteration. Hungary was an ally of Germany during World War II. Anti-Jewish legislation was promulgated and antisemitism rose dramatically yet while the Jews of Poland and of other German-occupied territory were being annihilated, the Jews of Hungary were persecuted but not killed.
All that changed on March 19, 1944 when Germany invaded Hungary. In April the Hungarian Jews were ghettoized. Beginning May 15, 437.402 Jews were sent to Nazi concentration camps, primarily to Auschwitz, 147 trains, 54 days. Four out of five were killed on arrival. The deportations were halted on July 8th, the very day that Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Budapest, the last remaining Jewish community in the blood soaked continent of German-occupied Europe.
And for the next six months there was a daily struggle to preserve these Jews. Wallenberg arrived with a mandate to save Jews. It does not diminish his exalted stature to recall that he arrived in Budapest seemingly as a Swedish Diplomat, but actually as a representative of the War Refugee Board, the American governmental body established when the United States finally got serious about rescuing Jews. Sweden consented to his participation because it wanted to cleanse its wartime record of close trade relationships with Nazi Germany. Wallenberg volunteered for this mission. He did not initiate the process of using official looking documents to save Jew or even the idea of using safe houses flying the flags of neutral countries. But he did devote his entire being to saving Jews, putting his life at risk – Adolf Eichmann threatened him, “even diplomats can meet with accidents.”
Still he did not operate alone. Official documents were printed, but many more were unofficially forged. Official documents were given to those who made it to the Swedish embassy. Many more were distributed by the Zionist underground, which exploited the chaos of the Hungarian capital under siege to enlarge the scope of Wallenberg’s activities.
Posing as a non-Jew of pre-draft age Endre Solyom, Stevens was a forger of ever increasing skill. He was also a courier of ever increasing daring delivering these documents. Each document offered a chance for life. Without them, death was imminent.
Stevens was born in Budapest 1923 as Endre Steinberger. His father a tailor, his mother a housewife, they were secular Jews belonging to the Neolog movement, the Hungarian equivalent of Conservative Judaism. Survivor accounts are usually divided into three major chapters Before, During and After and Stevens’ memoir is not exception. Yet his memoir pays scant attention to his life after. The charm of his depiction of the world before, the recollections of his grandparents’ villages and his large extended family is triggered in flashbacks when after four score and seven years he returns to the scenes of his pre-war life, sees what is present and experiences what is absent.
His post-war experience is mentioned but briefly, escape from Hungary to the West, his movement to the United States and to Los Angeles, marriage, divorce, remarriage, success in business and the opportunity to contribute to the efforts led by Tony Curtis – ne Bernard Schwartz – the restore elements of Hungarian Jewish life.
The heart and soul of the book however in is his Holocaust experience. At first he retains the perspective of a rebellious youth. Stevens is still angry at failure of Hungarian Jewry to grasp the dangers that awaited them and their passivity in the face of increasing peril. This serves as a marked contrast with his activities late in the war after he escaped from a slave labor battalion and returned to Budapest. Like many survivors’ memoirs, Stevens narrates the history of the time in which he lived, not quite distinguishing between what he knew at the time and what he learned afterwards. He judgments are certain where the historical record is not quite clear.
For example, he writes: “The leaders of Hungarian Jewry knew all about the Final Solution Still they cooperated with the Germans and their Hungarian helpers justifying their actions as if they were good for the community.” I teach my students to distinguish between knowledge and information and also to note when the rumors of impending death were confirmed and internalized and formed the basis on which to act. Yet Stevens’ passion is clear and the history he presents essential to understand his deeds in context.
Escaping from a slave labor camp in the fall of 1944, he was recruited by an old acquaintance who was also posing as a non-Jew and introduced into the world of the Zionist underground. At first he witnesses its primitive yet essential operations of copying and forging documents and delivering them to ever more desperate Jews. Endre Solyom gradually acquired the skills to forge his own documents, to scavenge for the ink and paper and then to distribute these documents. In the process, he encountered Wallenberg directly and gives ample testimony of his personal courage, charisma and effectiveness. Solyom witnessed the drowning of Hungarian Jews in the Danube River in the center of Budapest. To save ammunition, Jews were chained together and only one was shot – or only every other one – and they were dragged into the frozen river by the weight of the dead Jew.
Raoul Wallenberg died alone in the Soviet Gulag, but he did not work alone. His effectiveness depended on an underground army of men and women who prepared the forged official looking documents and the distributed them to needy Jews at a time when the difference between life and death was a stamp on a document. Stevens were certainly not the least of these young people. His story is their story and enables us to understand that Jews rescuing Jews is an essential and still undertold part of Holocaust history.
April 4, 2011 | 11:36 am
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
When I heard the news this evening that William J. Lowenberg, the former Vice-Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and a prominent San Francisco developer and Philanthropist had died, I recalled the conversation we had had about his last journey to Poland. President George W. Bush had appointed him to the delegation headed by Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff to represent the President at the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 2008. As Presidential delegates go, Lowenberg was a natural choice. A native of Holland, his office still has a picture of his hometown synagogue on his wall along with his picture with Presidents and Prime Ministers, all the signs of his stature and achievement. Lowenberg was a survivor of Auschwitz. During its most formative years from 1982-1993 Lowenberg was Vice-Chairman of the United States Memorial Council, appointed by President Ronald Reagan to oversee the development of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. It was during this period that funds for the construction of the Museum were raised, the building was erected and the permanent exhibition was created and the Museum was opened to the public. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Lowenberg reflected, “an opportunity and an achievement worthy of a lifetime.”
The 2008 trip was Lowenberg’s first visit to Poland since the war.
He had scrupulously avoided setting foot on Polish soil in the years since his incarceration despite the many pilgrimages that San Francisco’s Federation and National Jewish leadership had taken, despite the call of duty for the Holocaust Memorial Museum, despite – or because – of the haunting memories that a teenage boy incarcerated in Auschwitz must have.
He told me, almost casually, that he had been to Warsaw sixty four and half years ago.
Only one steeped in Holocaust history could understand what he meant.
A word of history: Warsaw was once the home of 400,000 Jews, one in three of the Polish capital’s inhabitants. It boasted of some eighty Jewish newspapers, numerous synagogues and distinguished yeshivot. It was populated by Jews of every sort, secular and religious, Zionist, who dreamed of life in Palestine and Bundists, militant Jewish socialist/nationalists who sought minority rights in majority culture, peasants and aristocrats, scholars and rabbis. It was the home of the Yiddish theater and a major exporter of Yiddish movies, many of them classics in the history of cinema, not just in Jewish cinema.
Shortly after the Germans invaded in September 1939 a ghetto was formed that was the largest ghetto in the world surrounded by an 11 foot high wall, which absorbed Jews from neighboring Polish towns and was the place which contained at its peak almost half a million Jews, more than 1 in 7 of the 3.3 million Jews of Poland. The ghetto must be viewed from two perspectives.
To the Germans the ghetto was a holding pen, a reservation to contain the Jews until a decision was made and the infrastructure created to implement that decision. For the Jew, the ghetto was life itself, what they would live until…
Until what, they did not know.
Their task was to endure, iberleben, to live beyond, to survive, is the word Jews used. That is how they lived in 1940, 1941, and in the winter and spring of 1942. And then the Great Aktion began, between the 23rd of July and the 12 of September 265,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka, a newly opened death camp, where they were gassed upon arrival.
For the most part, those who remained in Warsaw were young and alone, they had lost parents and siblings, even spouses and children and they vowed that they would not report voluntarily to the trains. Resistance was born in despair and even in self loathing for having been deceived by the words: “Resettlement in the East” and taken no action to stop it.
When deportation order was given again on April 19th – April 20th was Hitler’s birthday and Nazi leaders wanted to give him a Warsaw that was Judenrein as his gift – the Jews rose in armed resistance. At first the Germans were forced to flee – Jews fought and the mighty German Army was in retreat, at least for the moment.
But when they returned, they came back in force. Rather than fight the Jews from street to street General Jorgen Stropp gave the order to burn down the entire ghetto, building by building, block by block. On May 16th 1943, in the final coup de grace Stropp gave the order to blow up the Tlomack Street synagogue. He wrote to his superiors in cryptic terms “The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw in No Longer.”
Lowenberg was in Auschwitz when the Warsaw Ghetto rose in rebellion. Deported from Holland he faced selektion. Young and able bodied, he was capable of hard work and he was chosen for such labor. No one survived Auschwitz alone and Lowenberg had an older friend, who guided him and supported him. His friend and he were among the prisoners sent from Auschwitz to clear the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto. They had volunteered for the assignment, hoping – perhaps against their better judgment—that is was wise to get out of Auschwitz, gambling that this time, the Germans were not lying to them. They had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
When he arrived in Warsaw, the ghetto was in ruins; the only building left standing was a Roman Catholic Church near the edge of the ghetto that was served by Roman Catholic priests and Roman Catholic alter boys, that was used by Roman Catholic nuns and Roman Catholic parishioners who because of their Jewish ancestry – literally the blood of their grandparents – were defined as Jews by the Nazis.
Bodies were strewn about and beneath the rubble were even more bodies of Jews who had built hiding places and who were asphyxiated by the world burning above them. One tries of imagine what a sixteen year old boys faced, and the more one tries, the more one fails. Even Lowenberg cannot describe what he saw; words elude him but not the sense of astonishment, not the sense of loss. He had lived through Auschwitz and seen all he had seen. He arrived in Warsaw and had to comb the ruins brick-by-brick, body-by- body. He had grown old though according to the reckoning of the calendar, he was still a teenager.
So as he returned to Warsaw, reluctantly yet defiantly, he saw the contrast between the ruins of his imagination and a city that is thriving amidst the prosperity of the post-Communist years. He saw a building boom. As a developer in the company of another developer who saw the opportunities of the future, Lowenberg could not escape the rubble of the past. He could not invest in Poland’s future or see his own future in Poland; on that soil, he could only perform his task representing his adopted homeland, the President of these United States and returning home to the land of his freedom, the land of his rebirth. He attended the ceremonies and heard the speeches by the Polish President and Prime Minister, the President of Israel, Shimon Peres and the representative of President Bush. He was there – but somehow also not there.
And yet, on American soil, all Lowenberg wanted to talk about was the future. He was to attend the Gala pre-opening of San Francisco new Jewish Museum. He was upset by the scandals in Israeli politics. He was concerned about the Iranian threat to Israel. Survivors have learned to take threats seriously and promises far more lightly. He was looking forward to the campaign and the election. He was proud of the work that he did with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the way it had served the cause of remembrance, the children who were visiting the Museum and learning about the past. They would shape the future; they would remember.
It was not easy to return, but it was clear to see the distance he had traveled from the ashes of Auschwitz and rubble of the ruined ghetto to a suite high above San Francisco—the distance he had traveled and the distance the Jewish people had traveled in the 64 ½ years since he last set foot in Warsaw.