Polish bishops pray in apology for 1941 Jewish massacre
WARSAW, Poland (AP) – Reflecting native son Pope John Paul II’s efforts to reach out to Jews, Poland’s Roman Catholic bishops made a historic apology Sunday not only for a 1941 massacre of Jews in northeastern Poland, but also for wrongs committed by Catholics against Jewish compatriots during World War II.
About 100 bishops participated in the unprecedented ceremony, led by the head of the Catholic church in Poland, Cardinal Jozef Glemp.
Polish Catholic leaders expressed hope that what was termed an ”apology to God” would be a landmark in reconciliation with Jewish groups who often accuse them of being too tolerant of anti-Semitism.
”We want, as pastors of the church in Poland, to stand in truth before God and people, but mainly before our Jewish brothers and sisters, referring with regret and repentance to the crime that in July 1941 took place in Jedwabne and in other places,” Bishop Stanislaw Gadecki said in the introduction Sunday.
Jedwabne is a town in northeastern Poland where as many as 1,600 Jews were massacred in July 1941. Sunday’s ceremony was prompted by recent revelations that Poles, not Nazi troops, did the killing there and in some neighboring towns.
”Among the perpetrators were also Poles and Catholics, baptized people,” said Gadecki, who chairs the Polish church’s council for dialogue with other religions.
”We are in deep sorrow over the actions of those who over history, but particularly in Jedwabne and in other places, have inflicted suffering on Jews, and even death. We condemn all signs of intolerance, racism and anti-Semitism, which are sinful.”
The Polish church said it was ”following the call and the example of John Paul II,” who has sought to bring his church closer to Judaism and other faiths by confessing past sins of Catholics.
After an hour of prayers and solemn religious music, Glemp finished the ceremony by reading a prayer written by the pope last year urging more worldwide understanding for the Jewish people.
About 2,500 mostly elderly Poles attended the ceremony in the massive All Saints’ Church at the edge of the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, where the city’s Jews were herded under Nazi occupation.
Rabbi Michael Schudrich, leader of Poland’s Jewish community of about 20,000 people, said the gesture had ”the potential to be one more very important step” in reconciliation between Polish Catholics and Jews since the end of communist rule in 1989.
He declined an invitation to join the ceremony, however, because it was held at the beginning of the Jewish Shavuot, or Feast of Weeks. Schudrich also has bristled at suggestions by Glemp that Jews apologize for Jewish communists who persecuted Polish patriots after World War II.
Reconciliation is a complicated and delicate endeavor in Poland, where 90 percent of the population identify themselves as Catholic – and where 3 million of the nation’s prewar Jewish population of 3.5 million were killed in the Holocaust.
A letter of apology by a Polish bishops conference last August condemned ”our sins from the time of the Shoah – indifference and hostility.” Shoah is the Hebrew word for Holocaust.
Glemp also has publicly asked forgiveness for Polish priests who tolerate anti-Semitism.
Some elderly people waiting to enter the church, including some who had lived through the horrors of the war, insisted there was no need to apologize to Polish Jews.
”Have they ever thanked Poland for offering them a safe haven for hundreds of years? Have they ever thanked those who saved them during the war?” snapped one woman who would only give her first name, Janina.
The revelations over Jedwabne sparked an agonizing debate among Poles, taught by communist-era propaganda to believe they were always heroic victims – never collaborators – in Nazi-era atrocities.
A government probe also has been launched to see if charges should be brought against any living participant.
”I find it bad that a lot of Poles still aren’t facing up to the anti-Semitic past of their country,” Awigdor Nielawicki, who narrowly escaped the Jedwabne massacre and now lives in Israel, told the German news magazine Der Spiegel in an interview being published Monday. ”They must understand: the perpetrators were Poles.”
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