At a gathering this week of leading rabbis and some of the world's most
influential Catholic cardinals, a Chassidic rabbi called upon the Catholic
Church to open its baptismal records from six decades ago so Jewish
children who were converted by their Catholic rescuers during World War II
can know their true past.
Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, originally from Brooklyn and chief rabbi of Ukraine
since 1990, made his remarks at a conference convened by the World Jewish
Congress at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in downtown Manhattan in a
glass-walled room overlooking New York Harbor.
|Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, meeting with Pope in 2001|
Dressed in their full religious regalia of red-buttoned black robes, bright red
sashes, large crosses and red yarmulkes, a dozen cardinals some
rumored to be leading contenders to be the next pope and as many
rabbis each delivered papers over the course of the gathering on Monday
and Tuesday. Many of the presentations were scholarly explications of the
Jewish and Christian Bibles and of the respective religious perspectives on
Amid this, Rabbi Bleich's impassioned demand stood out sharply.
"Thousands perhaps tens of thousands of Jewish children were saved
by Catholics. Many were returned to the Jewish people. Some were not," he
said. "The Catholic Church has the obligation to tell them and let them
decide" which faith they choose.
"Until then, the souls of their parents cannot rest. Until then, their personal
Holocaust continues," Rabbi Bleich said.
In an interview with The New York Jewish Week over lunch later, Rabbi Bleich said he
would like to see a joint Jewish-Catholic commission be appointed to
investigate the matter further and a database developed with information
about the children whose physical lives were saved by Catholic rescuers but
whose Jewish spiritual lives were ended.
Rabbi Bleich said he raised the issue directly with Pope John Paul II during a
gathering in Ukraine in 2001. A private meeting scheduled for the next day
was called off by the pontiff's aides.
The Catholics are resisting his idea, Rabbi Bleich said, "because they believe
they're saving souls. There are many parents who survived who could not
get their children back. Thousands, for sure."
Rabbi Bleich's presentation was all the more poignant because sitting by his
side was Jean-Marie Lustiger, cardinal of Paris, who was born a Jew and
converted to Catholicism at age 14, just after the war. Cardinal Lustiger
born Aharon Dov is one of the Pope's closest confidants, and would be
considered a leading candidate to succeed him but for his age. He is in his
Cardinal Lustiger's mother was one of thousands of French Jews deported
to German concentration camps. She was murdered at Auschwitz. Cardinal
Lustiger, who apparently still considers himself Jewish in some respects,
goes to the death camp each year to recite the memorial prayer Kaddish and
has signed letters to Jews with his Hebrew name.
At lunch on the first day of the conference, Cardinal Lustiger bantered in
Yiddish with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the noted Lubavitch writer and teacher of
Chassidic philosophy and translator of the Talmud.
In an interview over lunch Tuesday Cardinal Lustiger called this gathering
"The World Symposium of Catholic Cardinals and Jewish Leaders" "the
most important meeting between Jews and Christians in the last many
years. This has been a new and strange encounter," he said. "Very fruitful."
The cardinal motioned to his throat that he was losing his voice but
continued to answer questions about the value of the gathering.
"This is not a political meeting," he said. "We meet as men of faith and have
to learn to know each other. We trust the faith and sincerity of each other
so we can frankly say what we think. When believers, Jews and Catholics,
join their efforts they can perhaps better respond to challenges."
Asked about Rabbi Bleich's call to open baptism records, Cardinal Lustiger
indicated that he had lost his voice and could answer no more questions.
At the next table was Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, said to be a
candidate to be the next pope.
About Rabbi Bleich's call, Cardinal Schonborn said it involves "a practical
question that has to be answered by people in Ukraine."
"I'd ask him to give us precise ideas and see how to put that into practice.
The Catholic hierarchy in Ukraine is willing to do all it can" to resolve such
open questions, said Cardinal Schonborn.
"But it is not only an issue of Catholics but also Orthodox Christians. How
can we do such research? It is a local issue. It is not a general issue for the
Catholic Church," he said.
Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust
survivor who himself was rescued by his Catholic nanny and baptized, has
brought up the same issue directly with Pope John Paul on several
occasions, according to a spokeswoman for the organization, Myrna
Shinbaum. But there has been no direct response. Foxman did not
participate in this week's conference.
On Monday morning the cardinals visited the Torah study hall at Yeshiva
"For us to meet a living, active, inspired and inspiring Jewish community,
especially the Orthodox community, to see so many young people dedicated
to their faith and to being fully involved in modern life, was very valuable,"
said Cardinal Schonborn.
On Tuesday afternoon the entourage visited Ground Zero. The conference
concluded with the dissemination of a statement signed by participants
acknowledging Pope John Paul II's contribution to Catholic-Jewish dialogue,
and with a pledge to continue meeting, on different continents, "to address
the challenges of general religious peace and to confront the rise of hate
The meeting was historic because of the seniority of the participants in their
respective faiths, said Elan Steinberg, WJC's executive vice president.
"This is the highest-level substantive dialogue that has ever taken place,"
he said. "The very fact that we can meet with this level of candor is
testimony to the maturity of the dialogue."
The gathering was assembled fairly quickly with the help of Cardinal
Lustiger, Steinberg said, partly because of the Pope's poor health.
"We are going to enter into a new papacy," said Steinberg. "It's inevitable.
And one of the things we want is attention paid to constructive dialogue."
His organization made a point, he said, of inviting "those who will be
shaping this next papacy."