Budapest and Bratislava Jews ask Pope Francis for wider dissemination of Nostra Aetate
Francesco’s meetings with Hungarian and Slovakian Jewish Community leaders on occasion of his trip to Budapest for the international Eucharistic Congress are another landmark in the process of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Jewish People.
It was the first papal visit to Budapest in 25 years and the first Eucharistic Congress since 1938 – the year Hungary began issuing its anti-Jewish laws (which were totally ignored by that international gathering.) In between these events, on August 18, 1991 John Paul II met with Hungarian Jewish representatives during a trip to the country, and made his groundbreaking statement that antisemitism and other forms of hatred are “sins against God and humanity”. Memorably, he also asserted that Jews had made “an essential contribution to the spiritual and cultural life of the world.”
These were thundering historic declarations. Yet at that time, lingering post-Holocaust trauma in the memory of survivors still created communication obstacles. Chief Rabbi Peter Kardos had recalled that “Sadly, actions taken by… the Roman Catholic Church of Hungary against the deeds of horror did not prove very efficient.”
In the flourishing pre-World War II Hungarian Jewish community of approximately 800,000, more than 500,000 were murdered by German Nazis and Hungarian Fascists. Antisemitism was rampant and largely accepted by the masses. During the 1944 deportations, a Catholic mass was even held in the town of Visegrad with prayers that the village be freed of all its Jews.
Pope Francis, in his encounter with Hungarian and Slovakian Jewish representatives warned that global antisemitism has returned to being a threat to our times. In Budapest he spoke of “the threat of antisemitism still lurking in Europe and elsewhere” calling it “a fuse that must not be allowed to burn” adding “And the best way to defuse it is to work together, positively, and to promote fraternity.” In Bratislava at the site of a Holocaust memorial erected in the place where the main synagogue that had served a thriving Jewish Community once stood, Francis recalled that 100,000 Jews had been murdered in Slovakia. He said,
“Dear brothers and sisters, your history is our history, your pain is our pain. For some of you this Shoah Memorial is the only place where you can honor the memory of your loved ones. I am united with you. On the Memorial ‘Zachor’ is inscribed in Hebrew: ‘Remember!’ Memory cannot and must not give way to oblivion….We are united – I repeat – in condemning all violence, every form of antisemitism, and in committing ourselves to combating the profanation of the image of God in the human being.”
Shadows but also lights were part of wartime relations between exponents of the Catholic Church and the persecuted Jews in Hungary. In all, 869 trees were planted at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem garden commemorating the same number of Hungarian “Righteous Gentiles” who risked their lives to save Jews, including Angelo Rotta, Apostolic Nuncio in Budapest, who made vehement protests to the Horthy government against the deportations and was one of the international diplomats in Budapest (together with Carl Lutz, Friedrich Born, Raoul Wallenberg, Angel Sanz Briz) who succeeded in joint efforts by their Swedish, Swiss, Portuguese and Spanish legations as well as the international Red Cross to procure protected housing for persecuted Jews and issue false conversion certificates. The name of a great Italian, Giorgio Perlasca, must also be included. He was not an appointed diplomat, just a simple businessman dealing with import-export in Budapest who felt the need to intervene, in order to continue the Spanish Consulate’s work in saving Jews. As a Loyalist veteran of the Spanish Civil War, he presented himself as the new Spanish Consul-General to replace the Spanish Consul who had fled. With audacious bravado he added the category of “Marranos” (secretly converted Spanish Jews) to those eligible for Spanish passports issued by the Consulate for “Spanish citizens”. He thus rescued 5,218 Jews, while the Apostolic Delegate, Angelo Rotta, backed by the Vatican, managed to distribute more than 15,000 protective passes.
Another Yad Vashem “Righteous Gentile” was mentioned by a Slovakian survivor who testified at the Bratislava meeting stated, “In the sad history of the Shoah in Slovakia the name of Msgr. Giuseppe Burzio, Chargé d’affaires of the Nunziatura , stands out. He made tireless efforts to halt the antisemitism of the murderous regime of that era. No Slovakian politician at the time openly opposed that regime.” Slovakia has 615 trees planted in memory of those brave civilians, both religious and not, who had the courage to challenge the Nazi allied regime’s president, a Catholic priest, Monsignor Jozef Tiso. Lights and shadows alternate and combine in the history of World War II.
But antisemitism is still alive and well in the region today. A recent survey commissioned by MAZSIHISZ, the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, found that 20% of Hungarians (one in five) were found to be strongly antisemitic whereas another 16 percent were “moderately so” –nearly four out of ten in all.
Against this background, there is special significance in the local Jewish reactions to Pope Francis’ visit and speeches. His encounters with Jewish Community leaders in both Budapest and Bratislava evidenced the noteworthy good will and cooperation that has been nurtured on both sides in recent years, a great change from the past..
“Before World War II such relations simply did not exist” said Edith Bruck, the Hungarian born, prize-winning writer, poet, and Holocaust survivor. Last February Francis paid a surprise visit to her home in Rome after reading her latest autobiographical book, “Il Pane Rubato” (“Stolen Bread”). It was a moving encounter. She expressed a surge of empathy in speaking of Francis’ speeches in Budapest, reserving special appreciation for his separate address to the Rom community, who were also victims of the Shoah “but too frequently ignored”, she remarked.
We asked both Edith and Jewish representatives from Budapest and Bratislava about the present state of interreligious cooperation in these countries. According to Andràs Heisler, President of the MAZSIHISZ Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, “Interreligious relations are undoubtedly excellent. Many Jewish-Christian organizations operate in Hungary, co-organizing events, and its leaders often consult with each other on questions of public life. The ecclesiastical hospitals of four large churches organize joint Christian-Jewish projects and annual Tihany conferences with the support of UNESCO.” Similar declarations were made by Richard Duda, Chairman of the Central Union of Religious Jewish Communities in the Slovak Republic and Tomas Kraus, AJC Representative in Prague.
The question that left all in doubt however, was what lasting imprint this visit would make in combating antisemitism among the people of the region. Edith Bruck is pessimistic. “My many friends in Hungary tell me that the situation has gotten worse and they feel it will not improve. Antisemitism is again on the rise in all of Europe. Unfortunately Pope Francis’ very important words and the efforts of all the Popes that preceded him since 1960 will not have the impact they deserve.”
MAZSIHISZ President Andràs Heisler, who has also met with Pope Francis in the past said, “We greatly value Pope Francis’ work and the Church’s continued fight against racism and antisemitism.” He added that he felt, however, that there was now a great need for “a wider dissemination of what is stated in the Nostra Aetate Declaration. Hopefully its spirit and content may reach the wider ecclesia”. He noted the dramatic contrast between the negative memories of the 1938 Eucharistic Congress and the current organization of events that are “very consciously trying to avoid this serious legacy. The concert on Dohany Street before the opening day, the prayer composed to Yiddish music reveal the attitude of the Catholic Church, which is important and dear to us”.
Essentially, there seemed to be agreement that while the highest levels of the Catholic Church have made enormous strides towards mutual understanding and a dialogue of respect, there is an impellent need for the message of the Vatican II Document to reach the majority of the populace. Certainly “working together “ and “promoting fraternity”, as mentioned by Pope Bergoglio, are essential and have often blossomed into lasting friendships, but in order to prevent the “fuse of antisemitism” to burn once more, they need to be accompanied by far-reaching education to eradicate surviving tropes of anti-Judaism among the people, using Nostra Aetate as a base.
Cover photo: Pixabay