Pope John XXIII had just been elected to the papacy in 1958. That evening he told his driver to take him to the old Jewish ghetto of Rome. There, in front of the ancient synagogue, he prayed in silence for the Jews who had been rounded up there during the Holocaust and returned home.
As Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, the future John XXIII had been sent by Pope Pius XI as his emissary to Greece and Turkey in 1934. Because of his earlier experience in Bulgaria, he was regarded as the Vatican’s specialist in Eastern Europe. He had many successes in dealing with the secular government of Kemal Attaturk in Turkey. He was far less successful in Nazi-occupied Greece and Yugoslavia.
Neutral Turkey offered an escape route for thousands of Jews caught in southeastern Europe. Roncalli formed a working relationship with Chaim Barlas of the Jewish Agency.
Dina Porat, from Tel Aviv University, has recently found evidence that Roncalli expressed criticism of the Vatican’s silence about the Holocaust. He sent information concerning Auschwitz to the Vatican. He wrote to the president of Slovakia, himself a priest, the Rev. Josef Tiso, to stop the Nazi deportations of Jews to death camps in Poland.
In 1943, Italy surrendered to the Allies and imprisoned Mussolini. Hitler freed Il Duce, seizing most of the Italian peninsula. Almost immediately, the Nazis began deporting Italian Jews to the death camps. Archbishop Roncalli tried to use his influence with “moderate” German officials such as Franz von Papen to save the lives of some 24,000 Jews.
He also employed his goodwill with the Turkish government to secure the safe passage of Jews into the region of Palestine.
After the war, Isaac Herzog, the grand rabbi of Jerusalem, praised Roncalli for his efforts. For his part, the archbishop wrote that “Jesus came to break down these divisions between peoples.”
Much of this story is told by Peter and Margaret Hebblethwaite in “John XXIII: Pope of the Century.”
John XXIII also felt great sadness for the way in which the church had historically treated the Jewish communities in Rome and elsewhere.
Michael O’Neill McGrath, one of our favorite authors and illustrators has written of this record while commenting on a visit to Rome’s Synagogue in an article titled “Holy Ground: In Rome All Paths Lead to History” in the April 9, 2010 issue of the independent lay Catholic magazine Commonweal:
“Beneath the synagogue is a museum with artifacts such as liturgical objects and furniture, along with a lot of historical information. I read about Pope Paul IV (1555-59), who built a wall around the ghetto and forced Jews to wear silly yellow hats on the streets ...
“The museum also provided interesting facts about Gregory XIII (1572-85) ... he was a strict enforcer of the official policies regarding the Jews, which, in addition to the yellow hats, included curfew laws and the sixteenth-century equivalent of separate water fountains, park benches, and seats in the back of the bus. I left there a very sad man.”
The much beloved Pope John XXIII was not the first pope to pray for the Jews, but he was the first to fully comprehend the church’s complicity in what Holocaust refugee Jules Isaac called “the teaching of contempt.”
Hear from a holocaust survivor
The public is invited at 7 p.m. on Thursday to hear Holocaust survivor Sara Braitberg Moses.
She’ll speak at Temple Beth David, 10180 Los Osos Valley Road, in San Luis Obispo.
Moses will tell the story of her survival at age 6 without her parents, through Holocaust ghettoes and in the camps of Ravensbruck and Bergen-Belsen, where Anne Frank died.
Liz Krieger contributed to this week’s column.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.