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The Vatican Fails To Remember the Holocaust

by Pierre Sauvage

An abridged version of this article was published in the Los Angeles Times, March 20, 1998 (for sale from L. A. Times). The following article is excerpted from Pierre Sauvage’s contribution to "Holocaust Scholars Write to the Vatican," edited by our dear friend, the late Harry James Cargas, published by Greenwood Press in 1998.

As a child survivor of the Holocaust who was sheltered by Christians—indeed by a community of Christians—I am astonished by the long awaited document on the Holocaust issued on March 16 by the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews.

"We remember: A Reflection on the Shoah" is not merely feeble or vague, as is being said of it. For all its politically correct references to "the unspeakable" and to the "Shoah," the document strikes me as contrived and insincere. It hurts rather than heals.

In his accompanying letter, Pope John Paul II indicates that the Church thus "encourages her sons and daughters to purify their hearts, through repentance of past errors and infidelities." But you cannot repent for past errors if you do not acknowledge them. You cannot encourage others to repent if you do not set the example yourself.

By refusing to accept a significant measure of collective responsibility, by merely condemning "selfishness" and "hatred," the Church, once again, fails to provide leadership. The repentance that consists in saying, "To the extent that I did something wrong, I am sorry," is the repentance of the non-repentant. Surely for Catholics too, repentance requires a desire to know and understand your sin.

Christians and non-Christians, believers and non-believers, we all live in the shadow of a great lesson: the truth will make you free. The greatest reproach against Pope Pius XII is that he did not speak out when humanity was at a moral crossroads. Why is the Church still so tongue-tied in addressing this monumental failure? Why is it again lagging behind some of its flock? When will it speak clearly and forcefully on the Christian share of responsibility for the Holocaust?

To be sure, the document acknowledges the "anti-Judaism" of which "Christians" have been guilty (while noting that Jews "on occasion violently opposed" the first Christians"). But it does so mainly to distinguish the anti-Judaism ("in some Christian quarters") from the Nazi ideology that followed, with its "roots outside of Christianity."

To be sure, National Socialism was indeed "neo-pagan." But how is it that it flourished—apparently without roots—in the very heart of Christian Europe? Is it completely irrelevant to the Church that the murderers were the children of Christians—if not Christians themselves?

Why were these advocates and practitioners of murder not denied the sacraments? Why were they not told that mortal sins were being committed? Is there any record of Hitler, that son of Catholics and former choirboy, even being threatened with excommunication?

When will the Vatican records from the Nazi era be opened to the public so we can know precisely what was said and what wasn’t said? Such an act, within the Pope’s power to perform, would be the most compelling demonstration of a willingness to face the facts.

There are astonishing passages throughout the text. It refers to Jews in the 19th century as often being "accused of exercising an influence disproportionate to their numbers," leading to increased anti-Judaism. Assuming the accusation is justified—as it would be today and has been throughout much of Jewish history—is the suggestion here that this influence was pernicious? Do Christians not profoundly believe that righteous influence should indeed be disproportionate to numbers?

The governments of "some Western countries of Christian tradition, including some in North and South America, were more than hesitant" in welcoming persecuted Jews. "More than hesitant"? Is this theological language? "Some Western countries"? Why the reluctance to name the U.S., the principal offender?

And why is Cardinal Cassidy of Australia, President of the Vatican commission that authored this document (allegedly after 11 years of reflection), allowed to single out the Americas when his own continent slammed doors as tightly as any?

In a recitation of other massacres and dreadful victimizations, what in the world is meant by the closing reference to the "drama of the Middle East, the elements of which are well known"? I, for one, have no idea to what well-known elements the document is here referring. Am I completely wrong in wondering whether it means to imply, without quite daring to say it, that Jews too are capable of sinful conduct?

All this verbiage and no recognition of the central fact: the Holocaust would not have been possible without the complicity of most Christians and without the virulent tradition of antisemitism that had long infested the very soul of Christianity.

When it comes to the crucial matter of the responsibility of the Christian bystander, the Vatican document is at its most disingenuous. After asserting that "many people" were "altogether unaware of the ‘final solution’"—the growing truth is exactly the opposite, that we knew enough—the document begrudgingly asks whether "Christians" (i.e. Catholics, I presume) did all they could to help the persecuted Jews. Its typically equivocal answer: "Many did, but others did not."

The document briefly appears to say that except for the "many"—including Pope Pius XII—"who did help to save Jewish lives as much as was in their power," the resistance of other Christians was "not that which might have been expected from Christ’s followers." Those Christians, the document alleges, may have been "horrified" by what was happening but were not "strong enough" to protest. "We deeply regret the errors and failures of those sons and daughter of the Church," the document proclaims.

The lamentation that Christian conduct by and large was not what "might have been expected" seems hollow in the shadow of the statement that the Pope did all that was in his power to help the Jews. Most tellingly, this theological document completely avoids indicating what, precisely, "might have been expected" from Christians. On this, yet again, the document is tongue-tied. If not now, when? If not here, where?

As for the righteous Catholics, I will not quibble as to whether they were "many" or few. There are no absolute standards for such an evaluation; it is entirely a matter of perspective. Pope John Paul II has himself stated that even if they were "many" they were nonetheless too few.

Why, when the Christian faith was indeed implemented and lived by those few, was it so sadly and so massively ineffective for the many? Why no acknowledgement that this is the challenge posed to the Church by the memory of the Holocaust?

And while the document piously states that the righteous Christians "must not be forgotten," the reality is that the Vatican has done little to date to see that they are remembered.

There were indeed, "many" Catholics among the righteous. Pope John Paul II has already elevated more people toward sainthood than all of his predecessors in this century. Yet only a handful of these possible saints have been righteous Christians of the Holocaust. How is it there have been so very few possible saints among the "many" priests and nuns and lay Catholics who bore Christian witness at a time of mass apostasy? Only if the Church identifies the righteous Catholics of the Holocaust will it be able to learn from them—and be changed by them, to the glory of God and the lasting benefit of humankind.

I know what was possible. Where I was lucky to be born, the sturdy people of the area of Le Chambon, France, rooted in their history and their faith, extended a dangerous hospitality to all the Jews who made their way to this unique corner of the world. Although Le Chambon was an old Huguenot community, the Catholic minority there joined actively in the rescue effort.

However challenging my response may be to Christians, I am a Jew who will never forget that he survived the worst of what Christians allowed to happen because of the best of which Christians are capable. May future Christian teachings on the Holocaust meaningfully reflect both those aspects of the Christian experience of the Holocaust.

Chambon Foundation, 1998

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