Rome Newsroom, Sep 13, 2021 / 10:19 am (CNA).
Pope Francis on Monday recalled the great suffering endured by the Jewish community in Slovakia during the Holocaust, and encouraged Jews and Christians to be united in condemning violence and anti-Semitism.
“Dear brothers and sisters, your history is our history, your sufferings are our sufferings,” the pope told Slovakia’s Jewish community in the capital, Bratislava, on Sept. 13.
“Now is the time when the image of God shining forth in humanity must no longer be obscured. Let us help one another in this effort,” he said.
Francis noted that “in our day too, so many empty and false idols dishonor the Name of the Most High: the idols of power and money that prevail over human dignity; a spirit of indifference that looks the other way; and forms of manipulation that would exploit religion in the service of power or else reduce it to irrelevance.”
“But also forgetfulness of the past, ignorance prepared to justify anything, anger and hatred,” he added.
“I repeat: let us unite in condemning all violence and every form of anti-Semitism, and in working to ensure that God’s image, present in the humanity he created, will never be profaned.”
Pope Francis met around 180 members of the Jewish community in Rybné Square, which sits just north of the Danube River in the Old Town area of Bratislava. The square was part of the city’s former Jewish quarter.
Bratislava had a large Jewish minority for centuries, with the first record of the Jewish community in the city dating to 1251.
In 1930, 15,000 Jews lived in Bratislava, which at that time had a total population of 120,000. In the late 1930s, the community was threatened by anti-Semitic riots and attacks on synagogues. The Slovak State, created in March 1939, also introduced discriminatory measures against the Jewish minority.
During World War II, almost all of Bratislava’s Jews were deported to concentration camps or labor camps. Around 11,500 of the more than 15,000 Jews then living in the city were murdered in the Holocaust.
Today, Bratislava has the largest Jewish community in Slovakia, numbering around 500. Slovakia, with a population of 5.5 million, is a majority Catholic country.
Pope Francis told the Jewish community he came to Rybné Square “as a pilgrim, to visit this place and be moved by it.”
“For centuries [the square] was part of the Jewish quarter. Here the celebrated rabbi Chatam Sofer labored. Here a synagogue stood alongside the Cathedral of the Coronation,” he said, adding that the architectural setting was “an expression of the peaceful coexistence” of the Jewish and Christian communities, “and a striking sign of unity in the name of the God of our fathers.”
“In later times, however, God’s name was dishonored: in a frenzy of hatred, during the Second World War more than 100,000 Slovak Jews were killed. In an effort to eradicate every trace of the community, the synagogue was demolished,” the pope said.
At the start of the encounter, Francis heard testimony from one of the around 3,500 Holocaust survivors from Slovakia, the 79-year-old professor Tomáš Lang.
Lang, who was born in May 1942, was saved from the Holocaust by nurses who hid him and other children in a hospital ward after his father died fighting in Ukraine and his mother died on a death march in Germany.
The nurses wrote the names of infectious diseases on the doors to the wards to deter armed men from entering. The hospital was later bombed and only 15 children and one nurse survived.
Lang, who said he had now been married 55 years and had two children and six grandchildren, explained that he had always been sorry that he could not find the nurse to thank her.
“I am of the generation that survived because of brave men who did not capitulate in the face of evil and, risking their lives, hid us until liberation,” he said. “For the past 20 years, I have dedicated myself to the history of the Shoah in southern Slovakia. I write a memento for the future, so that the past never happens again.”
The Ursuline nun Sr. Samuela also spoke at the event. She recounted several stories of times the congregation of sisters managed to hide Jewish children and adults in Slovakia, saving their lives.
“We are grateful that our sisters — who have perceived the sacredness of every human being, created in the image of God — have had the grace to do something to save the lives of these people,” she said.
Francis referenced the Holocaust Memorial, erected in 1996 on the site of a synagogue that was destroyed in 1969. The black wall, etched with a silhouette of the synagogue, is inscribed with the Hebrew and Slovakian words for “remember”: “Zachor” and “Pamätaj.”
“For some of you, this Memorial of the Shoah is the only place where you can honor the memory of your loved ones. I join with you in this,” he said. “Memory cannot and must not give way to forgetfulness, for there will be no lasting dawn of fraternity unless we have first shared and dispelled the darkness of the night.”
“This Square,” he continued, “is also a place where the light of hope shines forth. Each year you come here during Hanukkah to light the first lamp on the menorah. Darkness is dispelled by the message that destruction and death do not have the last word, but rather renewal and life.”
The pope recalled a 2017 meeting in Rome between members of the Jewish and Christian communities of Slovakia, after which a commission for dialogue with the Catholic Church was established.
Thanking them for their dialogue with Christians, he said: “It is good to share and make known the things that unite us. And it is good to advance, in truth and honesty, along the fraternal path of a purification of memory, to heal past wounds and to remember the good received and offered.”
“Our world needs open doors. They are signs of blessing for humanity,” he added.
“Here in this land of Slovakia, a land of encounter between east and west, north and south, may the family of the children of Israel continue to foster this vocation, the summons to be a sign of blessing for all the families of the earth. The blessing of the Most High is poured out upon us, whenever he sees a family of brothers and sisters who respect and love each other and work together.”
“May the Almighty bless you, so that, amid all the discord that defiles our world, you may always be, together, witnesses of peace. Shalom!” he concluded.
Pope Francis met with the Jewish community during the first full day of a four-day visit to Slovakia, which will take him also to the cities of Prešov, Košice, and Šaštín before returning to Rome on Sept. 15.
Before arriving in Slovakia on Sept. 12, Francis spent part of one day in Budapest, Hungary, where among other events he met with leaders of Hungary’s Protestant Christians as well as representatives of the country’s Jewish communities.
In that meeting, he denounced “the threat of anti-Semitism still lurking in Europe” and recalled the life of Miklós Radnóti, a Jewish Hungarian poet who was killed in the Holocaust.
“Imprisoned in a concentration camp, in the darkest and most depraved chapter of human history, Radnóti continued until his death to write poetry,” the pope said.
Francis also encouraged unity, stating that “the God of the covenant asks us not to yield to separatism or partisan interests. He does not want us to ally ourselves with some at the expense of others.”
“Let it never be said that divisive words come from the mouths of religious leaders, but only words of openness and peace. In our world, torn by so many conflicts, this is the best possible witness on the part of those who have been graced to know the God of the covenant and of peace,” he added.
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