November 23, 2020

Pope John XXIII – a true friend of the Jews

The Jerusalem Post - Israel News

The young generations should be aware of the goodness of this great man.


NOVEMBER 23, 2020 20:44


POPE JOHN XXIII – during the dark days of WWII, he felt the tragic plight of the Jewish people.

POPE JOHN XXIII – during the dark days of WWII, he felt the tragic plight of the Jewish people. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Pope John XXIII, known as “The Good Pope,” was born 139 years ago, on November 25, 1881.

His real name was Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli and his birthplace was Sotto-il-Monte, a picturesque village close to Bergamo in Italy.

He had 12 siblings, and his parents were hard-working farmers. The Roncalli family was aristocratic but Angelo was born into the poor branch. Unlike his predecessor, Pius XII, he lacked any meaningful bonds with the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy.

In 1904, he was ordained as a priest and at the same time obtained his doctorate in canon law. His first appointment was as personal secretary of the Bishop of Bergamo, a post he held until the death of the latter in 1914.

In the next two decades he held a number of posts in the Church until 1934, when he was appointed apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece and as archbishop of Bulgaria. From this stage on, he started to translate his love for Judaism in a very practical way.

During the dark days of WWII, he felt the tragic plight of the Jewish people and set up working bonds with representatives of the Yishuv – the pre-state Jewish population – primarily with Chaim Barlas, who was then emissary of the Jewish Agency.

Roncalli’s door was always open to Barlas, and he went out of his way to help alleviate the pain of the persecuted people. During those turbulent years Roncalli sent detailed reports to his superiors in the Vatican, with the expectation of getting support for his life-saving mission. In return, he got diplomatic lukewarm responses.

Without any instructions from the Vatican, he started to use the diplomatic courier to dispatch to Nuncio Angelo Rotta in Budapest desperately needed certificates of immigration to Palestine, which he got from the Jewish Agency. Years later, Monsignor Rotta was declared Righteous Among the Nations.

He also approached King Boris of Bulgaria, urging him not to hand over his country’s Jews to the Nazis.

Thanks to his active help, Jewish children were transferred to their final destination in Palestine through Slovakian territory.

Some accounts, yet to be corroborated, suggest that Roncalli might have sent certificates of Baptism to Hungary through the aforementioned diplomatic courier, to be used by the beleaguered Jews.

In 2011, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, an NGO I established together with my late friend, US Representative and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos, submitted to Yad Vashem a thick dossier with germane documentation to support our request to have Roncalli officially recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.

Unfortunately, Yad Vashem decided to decline the petition, claiming, “Indeed Roncalli showed enormous compassion and his rescue activity was documented by many sources,” but “he didn’t risk his position” (a criterion used by Yad Vashem in the case of diplomats).

Ironically, our foundation is named after Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish hero, who also did not risk his position (in fact, he was supported by the Swedish Government) and of course he was declared Righteous Among the Nations. Eventually, Wallenberg was abducted and most likely murdered by the Soviets, but that is another story.

AFTER WWII, Roncalli continued applying his sympathetic approach toward the Jews, this time, in connection with the establishment of the State of Israel.

In 1947, following a request from Father Alexandre Glasberg, Roncalli met Dr. Moshe Sneh. This story was told to me by former minister Yair Zaban, who served as personal assistant to Dr. Sneh in those days.

Moshe Shertok (Sharett) asked Sneh to go to the Vatican and convince its leaders not to interfere in the stance of many Latin American countries (deeply influenced by the Church) that otherwise were inclined to vote for the partition of Palestine in the UN, thus paving the way for the establishment of the Jewish state.

Glasberg was born Jewish and converted to Catholicism. As a priest, he saved the lives of many Jews during the Holocaust and was eventually recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. He was befriended with both Roncalli and Dr. Sneh.

Roncalli succeeded in arranging a meeting for Dr. Sneh in Rome with then-secretary of state Domenico Tardini. Roncalli even traveled to Rome to be close to the scene.

Secretary Tardini politely listened to Dr. Sneh’s argument but declined to commit himself.

After the meeting, Roncalli was worried about Tardini’s evasive attitude. Father Glasberg told Zaban that Roncalli had said to him, “Pope Pius XII had an excellent opportunity to atone for his lack of action during the Holocaust, and he did not embrace it.”

Eventually, Roncalli’s misgivings turned out to be unfounded, as most Latin American countries voted in favor of UN Resolution 181, giving the go-ahead to the partition of Palestine and the establishment of the State of Israel.

In 1958, already as Pope John XXIII, Roncalli started a revolution in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jews, absolving the latter for the collective guilt of Jesus’s death.

On October 1, 1962, his successor, Pope Paul VI, closed the Second Vatican Council with the Nostra Aetate declaration, which was largely based on Roncalli’s doctrine, and opened a new era in the ecumenical dialogue.

Among other gestures, Pope John XXIII ordered the removal of offending sentences in the Good Friday Prayer, which labeled Jews as “perfidious” and as “blind and obstinate for not recognizing Jesus as the Messiah.”

He went further by declaring, “Whoever despises or persecuted the Jews, inflicts an injury on the Catholic Church”.

In a nutshell, in three different stages of his life, Roncalli made a unique and long-lasting contribution to building bridges of understanding, love and respect toward Judaism. It is important to understand the historical context in which he acted and the centuries-old hostility against the Jews that prevailed in the Church.

I still hope Yad Vashem will reconsider Roncalli’s candidacy as Righteous Among the Nations, and I expect the State of Israel will honor his legacy in recognition for all his good deeds. The young generations should be aware of the goodness of this great man.

The author is the founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, a global-reach NGO devoted to preserving and spreading the courageous legacy of the rescuers of victims of the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide.