French Catholics WWII apology evokes praise and controversy

PARIS — Most French Jewish leaders have applauded the Catholic Church's public repentance last week for its silence during the persecution of Jews in Nazi-occupied France .

But some aspects of the "statement of repentance" have been called into question by Jews and non-Jews.

A ceremony for the official apology took place on Sept. 30, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, at the site of the Drancy transit camp outside Paris — where 64,000 of the 76,000 Jews deported from France during World War II were dispatched to Auschwitz.

Jean Kahn, president of the Consistoire, the official body overseeing the religious needs of France's Jewish community, said the church had fallen short of his hopes for a statement recognizing the "specifically Jewish nature of the Shoah."

The comments Pope John Paul made Oct. 2 about the apology and whether the Vatican would soon issue a document on the Holocaust also upset Kahn.

"The pope, on his way to Brazil, said there were many holocausts, and I find that upsetting," Kahn said.

The Vatican's "position on the Holocaust is a clear thing," the pope told reporters aboard the papal jet taking him to Brazil. "But we must not forget that there have been other holocausts in the world."

Kahn also wondered why the French church had waited so long to issue the apology, which came 57 years after the first anti-Semitic laws were promulgated by the pro-Nazi Vichy regime on Oct. 3, 1940.

"It could have been done when the German church apologized two years ago" on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, he said.

The apology was not warmly greeted by all Catholics in a country that long denied its active role in the Final Solution.

Monsignor Thomas, bishop of Versailles, said several Catholics had protested the church's self-criticism.

"I received a phone call this morning from someone who said, `You have no right to assume the errors of your predecessors,'" Thomas said.

On the same note Kahn's reaction sharply contrasted with that of most Jewish community leaders.

Henri Hajdenberg, president of CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations, hailed the church's mea culpa as a landmark in improving Jewish-Catholic relations.

Hajdenberg also paid tribute to seven priests who spoke out during the war against the mass arrests of Jews in France.

Although there were also some Catholic schools and orphanages that helped hide Jewish children, the church leadership largely backed the pro-Nazi Vichy regime.

Hajdenberg spoke after a statement of apology for the church's silence was read on behalf of the bishops of France.

"The vast majority of church officials, bound up in loyalism and docility that went far beyond traditional obedience to the established powers, stuck to an attitude of conformism, caution and abstention," the statement said.

By seeking forgiveness, the French church has joined a season of remembrance in France, the focal point of which is the start this week of the trial of former Cabinet minister Maurice Papon, who is accused of ordering the deportation of 1,560 Jews, 223 of them children, to Nazi death camps.

Some observers noted that the church may have timed its apology to pre-empt disclosures from the trial, which is expected to re-examine the behavior of different sections of wartime French society, including the church, during the persecution of Jews.

Another sore point in Jewish-Catholic relations in France was the involvement of extremist members of the clergy in hiding former Lyon militia chief Paul Touvier from justice for nearly 50 years before he was arrested and found guilty in 1994 of crimes against humanity by a Versailles court. Touvier died in 1996 in a prison hospital.