News Analysis: Jews insist Vatican open archives from Holocaust

NEW YORK — A long-awaited Vatican document addressing its role in the Holocaust is being greeted with nearly universal dismay and anger by Jewish leaders and Jewish experts on Catholic-Jewish relations.

And it is prompting a renewed call from national Jewish organizations for the Vatican to open its Holocaust-era archives so that the truth of the church's role during the attempted extermination of the Jews can once and for all be examined by historians.

Delegations of Jews slated to meet with the pope in coming days and weeks intend to voice that demand directly to the pontiff.

In Israel, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau, an Auschwitz survivor, reacted quickly and succinctly to the document.

It was "too little and too late," he said.

The 14-page paper, titled "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah," was issued at the Vatican on Monday by the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.

The document, which took 11 years to produce, acknowledges that individual Catholics did things that were wrong or even sinful in their support of anti-Semitism and Nazi persecution of Jews, and it repents for this — using the Hebrew word tshuvah.

But it absolves the church as an institution from complicity in the Holocaust.

It even warmly praises the controversial wartime Pope Pius XII — who has long been accused by scholars and other observers of remaining silent in the face of Nazi genocide — for saving hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives "personally or through his representatives."

Ironically, Jewish leaders say, the Vatican document fails to do what the current pope, John Paul II, himself has done in less formal documents and speeches — that is, take direct responsibility for the church's failure to try to quash the attempted genocide of the Jewish people.

Three key European bishops' conferences — the Polish, French and, most recently, the German — have acknowledged more culpability than the Vatican statement does.

Before the document was issued, Lau had called on those writing it to produce a clear statement on the silence of Christianity on the eve of the Holocaust and during the war. He said that a large part of the population that carried out the killing and mass destruction had been believing Catholics.

"There is no doubt a clear condemnation by the Vatican at that time would have had the force to stop the terrible things done during the Holocaust," Lau said.

He also criticized the paper for having praised Pope Pius XII. "You can't speak of rectifying the past without identifying the atcions of indivuals," he said.

Those involved in interfaith work are struggling to figure out why the church didn't go as far as the Jews had hoped — or expected.

"After so many years of dialogue, why at this point have they come out with this very weak document?" asked Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, who has been involved in Catholic-Jewish relations for more than three decades.

Klenicki called the paper "a real insult" and "a pretext for an apology for Pius XII."

Rabbi Mark Winer, who was in Rome this week as part of a delegation of rabbis and Catholic bishops traveling together to Israel and the Vatican, called the document "a well-crafted speedboat which is so encrusted with barnacles it doesn't get very far."

Winer, a White Plains, N.Y., rabbi who is president of the National Council of Synagogues, an umbrella organization of Reform and Conservative congregations, said that although the right terminology is included in the document, "the `remembrance' is incomplete, the `repentance' is lacking and the `resolve' for the future is pretty weak-kneed."

In "ascribing sinfulness to individual Catholics, it sidesteps responsibility on the part of the church," said Winer, who is slated to become senior rabbi of London's largest Reform synagogue. "It never says that Catholic teaching was central to the teaching of contempt about the Jewish people."

The document was signed by Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Vatican Commission, and the Revs. Pierre Duprey and Remi Hoeckman, who serve as its vice president and secretary, respectively.

Cassidy told a news conference announcing the document that it was "more than an apology."

"We feel that we have to repent," he said, "not only for what we may have done individually but also for those members of our church who failed in this regard."

The Vatican Commission took up the task of creating the document at Pope John Paul II's request in 1987 — a year after the pope had a historic meeting with Rome Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff in Rome's central synagogue.

It is the third formal document prepared by the commission, following the landmark Nostra Aetate declaration of 1965, which marked the first official gesture of reconciliation by the church to Jews.

The document begins by calling "the catastrophe that befell the Jewish people" the "worst suffering of all."

Then it opens a survey of Christian-Jewish relations by stating that "disputes between the early church and the Jewish leaders and people who, in their devotion to the Law, on occasion violently opposed the preachers of the Gospel and the first Christians."

Saying that Jews persecuted Christians in the first century of the common era is a statement straight out of things Christians said of Jews "in the Middle Ages," Klenicki said.

"There were confrontations, fights in the synagogue between early Christians and Jews, but never persecution. Did the Jews establish concentration camps or gas chambers for Christians? How can they put this at the same level?"

The Vatican statement takes pains to separate anti-Judaism from anti-Semitism, suggesting that only the Nazis were guilty of anti-Semitism.

It also stops far short of taking responsibility as a religious institution for promulgating the tenets of anti-Judaism, in particular the teaching that the Jews killed Jesus.

The widely accepted view is that this central Christian teaching provided the theological foundation for the anti-Semitism of the Nazi years that culminated in the murder of 6 million Jews.

Instead, the Vatican's document distances Christianity from the Holocaust. "The Shoah was the work of a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime," it says.

Some in the Jewish community are pointing to the fact that since it is not a document directly from the pope, a window of opportunity remains in which the pontiff can make a further statement about the Catholic role in the Holocaust.

But others disagree.

"Everything that comes from the Vatican is endorsed by the pope," Winer said.

Moreover, the statement was issued with a cover statement from the pope, who said he hoped that the document would "help to heal the wounds of past misunderstandings and injustices."

Ultimately, several experts in interreligious affairs said, the only way to resolve the concerns over this statement would be to open the Vatican archives to outside scrutiny.

"Then historians and researchers will be able to read all the correspondence of Vatican ambassadors in different cities, the answers Pius XII sent to the nuncios, what he told them to do or not to do," said Klenicki.

"All those documents are very important. They are the key."

Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's director of interreligious affairs, agreed, suggesting that the Vatican might now accede to Jewish demands to open the archives.

He said that, despite its flaws, the Vatican's document represented an important step forward since it put the official stamp of the Holy See on a number of important tenets.

"One of its important aspects is that it doesn't give credence to Holocaust deniers who are growing in number and will grow in number as the actual survivors of the Holocaust die a natural death," said Rudin, who also was in Rome this week on the interfaith mission.

"It is a permanent statement that will stand up and be used hopefully as a teaching document throughout the Catholic churches, seminaries, kindergartens, all the way through, from now into the future, in places where there are no Jews at all, like in Asia and Africa."