From Poland's Horrors to Repentance: John Paul II Fosters Christian-Jewish Understanding. (Column)

Article excerpt

The current film "The Pianist" portrays the terrible tragedies of the Jewish community in Warsaw, Poland, from 1939 to 1944. In 1942 alone, 312,000 Jews were sent to their deaths in the gas chambers. More than 60,000 died in the desperate ghetto uprising in 1943. The film centers on an enterprising musician who somehow escaped the carnage that befell the entire Jewish community; he died last year after a long and successful career as a brilliant pianist.

One can't avoid the thought while watching this film that Pope John Paul II was 22 in 1942 when the Germans murdered at least three-fourths of the Jews in Poland. The brutality of their treatment and the intense hatred the Germans had for the Jews is expressed in the film. The experience is shattering.

Was it providential that the first non-Italian pope in 500 years came from Poland? He is a man who has seen firsthand the destruction of an entire community within his country.

John Paul II has demonstrated more understanding for the Jewish community than any pope in history. He has seldom, if ever, publicly recalled his personal reactions to what happened. But he has recognized the state of Israel after all his predecessors, going back to 1948, refused to do so. He has tried to implement the Vatican II decree on Christian-Jewish relations published in 1965. He has taken several other initiatives.

But at the end of his pontificate, the residue of anti-Semitism, accumulated in centuries of disdain for Jews by Christians, still remains. It is sometimes not directly articulated, but expressed covertly. It is a sort of ethnic, tribal, class animosity that is more a vaguely inherited bias or prejudice, transmitted silently by an unseen, unspoken and odorless feeling.

One would like to think that Christian attitudes toward persons of Jewish ancestry are improving. And they are. But can there be a substantially improved way by which Christians and Jews can interact with more genuine friendliness and with true spiritual rapport?

The relationship between Catholics and Jews in America has witnessed great changes. The age of creating separate country clubs for Catholics, Protestants and Jews has gone forever, we hope. The tradition of having law firms based on religious affiliation is on the decline. Bias against Jews and Catholics at "WASP" organizations is less visible, if not totally gone.

But members of the Jewish community understandably wonder if another Warsaw could appear. …