For 20 centuries, the Catholic Church has had a turbulent relationship with the Jewish people. Jews were persecuted and held responsible for the death of Jesus, and were often the victims of church-instigated pogroms and anti-Semitic attacks.
With the passing of Pope John Paul II, we have lost the strongest advocate for reconciliation with the Jewish people in the history of the Vatican. This pope was determined to embark on a new course and leave that shameful period behind. From the very beginning of his papacy, when he first visited his native Poland, there were hints that this pope was going to break with tradition and not follow the centuries-old script, with respect to the Jews.
On his 1979 visit to Auschwitz, when he approached the inscriptions bearing the names of the countries whose citizens had been murdered there, he said: "I kneel before all the inscriptions bearing the memory of the victims in their languages.... In particular, I pause ... before the inscription in Hebrew. This inscription awakens the memory of the people whose sons and daughters were intended for total extermination.... It is not permissible for anyone to pass by this inscription with indifference.... "
The first time I met the pope was in 1983, when I led a Wiesenthal Center mission to Eastern Europe. There, at a private audience at the Vatican, I expressed my concerns about anti-Semitism and said, "We come here today hoping to hear from you, the beloved spiritual leader of 700 million Christians, a clear and unequivocal message to all that this scourge in all its manifestations violates the basic creed to which all men of faith must aspire."
Obviously, John Paul II understood that very well, but it is important to place in proper context the considerable obstacles that he had to overcome.
During the height of the Holocaust, when millions of Jews were being gassed, the Vatican found the time to write letters opposing the creation of a Jewish state. On May 4, 1943, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Magaloni informed the British government of the Vatican's opposition to a Jewish homeland in Palestine. One day later, the Vatican was informed that of the 4 million Jews residing in pre-war Poland, only about 100,000 were still alive.
Six weeks later, on June 22, 1943, the Vatican's apostolic delegate, Archbishop Cicognani, wrote to then U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, again detailing its opposition to a Jewish homeland in Palestine and warning him that Catholics the world over would be aroused, and saying, in part:
"It is true that at one time Palestine was inhabited by the Hebrew race, but there is no axiom in history to substantiate the necessity of a people returning to a country they left 19 centuries before.... If a Hebrew home is desired, it would not be too difficult to find a more fitting territory than Palestine."
To imagine then that 62 years later a Polish Pope would have redefined Vatican thinking regarding the Jewish people is astounding.
Twenty years after our first meeting, on Dec. 3, 2003, together with a small delegation of center trustees, I returned to the Vatican for another private audience, this time to present the pope with the Wiesenthal Center's highest honor, our Humanitarian Award. On that occasion, I recapped his remarkable accomplishments:
"As a youngster, you played goalie on the Jewish soccer team in Wadowice ... in 1937, concerned about the safety of Ginka Beer, a Jewish student on her way to Palestine, you personally escorted her to the railroad station ... in 1963, you were one of the major supporters of Nostra Aetate, the historic Vatican document which rejected the collective responsibility of the Jewish people for the crucifixion ... in 1986, you were the first pope to ever visit a synagogue ... the first to recognize the State of Israel ... the first to issue a document that seeks forgiveness for members of the church for wrongdoing committed against the Jewish people throughout history and to apologize for Catholics who failed to help Jews during the Nazi period ... the first to visit a concentration camp and to institute an official observance of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Vatican...."
I did not always agree with the pope, especially when he nominated Pius XII for sainthood or when he met with then Austrian President Kurt Waldheim. But one thing is clear: In the 2,000-year history of the papacy, no previous occupant of the throne of St. Peter has had such an interest in seeking reconciliation with the Jewish people.
With his passing, the world has lost a great moral leader and a righteous man, and the Jewish people have lost their staunchest advocate in the history of the church.
Rabbi Marvin Hier is the founder of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance.