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An Equivocal Apology Hurts More Than It Heals

Holocaust: The Vatican comes up short when it doesn't accept a significant measure of Christian responsibility.

by Pierre Sauvage

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 Monday 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 stated. For all its politically correct references to "the unspeakable" and to the "Shoah," the document strikes me as contrived, heartless, 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.

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?

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?

There is simply 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."

I will not quibble as to whether the righteous Catholics were "many" or few. There are no absolute standards for such an evaluation; it is entirely a matter of perspective. But 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. Yet, although Pope John Paul II has already elevated more people toward sainthood than all of his predecessors in this century, only a handful of these possible saints have been righteous Christians of the Holocaust. How is it that 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?

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.

Pierre Sauvage produced the 1989 documentary Weapons of the Spirit, which tells the story of Le Chambon. This article is excerpted from Sauvage's contribution to "Holocaust Scholars Write to the Vatican," published by Greenwood Press.


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