Rescuer sees exaggerations in Vaticans Shoah paper

ROME — A Jewish leader who played a key role in rescuing Jews during the Holocaust has denied Vatican claims that the wartime pope, Pius XII, saved hundreds of thousands of Jews.

Gerhart Riegner, honorary vice president of the World Jewish Congress, spoke Monday night at the opening of talks between the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations and the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.

Riegner, who was one of the first individuals to inform the world of the Nazi attempt to annihilate the Jewish people, was responding to a claim made in a controversial document on the Holocaust prepared by the Vatican commission and released last week.

The document, "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah," repented for individual Catholic failings during the Holocaust, but absolved the church itself from any responsibility and defended Pius XII.

Jewish leaders around the world have expressed disappointment at the document, but this week's four-day meeting represented the first full give-and-take encounter between Jewish leaders and the senior Vatican officials who prepared it.

The meeting, however, is a regular session that was scheduled long before the document's release.

"No individual person or institution can be credited with saving hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives," said Riegner, describing himself as someone who had been "deeply involved" in all aspects of rescue.

He also criticized the document's attempt to "exempt the church from any blame" and for its failure to clearly address the issue of centuries of Christian teaching of contempt for Jews.

He called for establishing a bilateral Catholic-Jewish committee to examine the issues that the document has raised.

The Jewish delegation was scheduled to meet with Pope John Paul II on Thursday. According to the World Jewish Congress, the group planned to express Jewish disappointment over the Vatican document directly to the pope.