Pope Francis sends e-mail on Holocaust to American Jewish leader

Pope Francis offers contributes to renewal of Catholic-Jewish relations in the form of a personal e-mail.


Pope Francis reached out to an American Jewish leader, the son of two Holocaust survivors, in a recent e-mail exchange.

The pope contacted Menachem Rosensaft, an American professor specializing in the law of genocide and war crimes trials at Columbia and Cornell, after Rosensaft sent a sermon he delivered in September on believing in God after the Holocaust, along with a personal note, to the Vatican.

Vatican officials confirmed the e-mail.

In the short note, Francis alluded to Rosensaft’s reflection on the possibility of God’s presence during the Holocaust, which the professor believes gave his father strength to pray even during his imprisonment and torture, and his mother the courage to rescue and tend to 149 children, largely orphans, inside a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.

Francis wrote to Rosensaft, translated by The Post from Spanish:

In Jewish circles, the response to the theological questions raised by the Holocaust has ranged from a rejection of God’s existence to a teaching in some ultra-Orthodox circles that sees the Holocaust as divine punishment. But for others, like Rosensaft, the Holocaust gave rise to a new way of thinking about God’s faithfulness amidst profound suffering. Rosensaft said that the pope’s acknowledgement that God was present even during the time of genocide through acts of courage and kindness “is a tremendous spiritual gift” that gives meaning to survivors of any act of violence.

“What I have tried to say in my sermon, which is why it is so gratifying to have Pope Francis validate this, was that God was not the perpetrator of the horrors but God’s divine presence is in the continued humanity of the victims, that the divine presence was within those who rescued, who saved, who helped,” Rosensaft said.

The outreach of the leader of the Catholic Church to the Jewish community in the context of the Holocaust and its fallout is also historically consequential.

The legacy of the Catholic Church’s actions and inactions during the genocide that led to the death of 6 million Jews, and 5 million others targeted by Nazis, continues to shadow Catholic-Jewish relations.

The church council known as Vatican II, which took place in the early 1960s, is often pointed to as a turning point in relations between the two groups, in particular the generation of Nostra Aetate, a Catholic document which formally denounced anti-Semitism and acknowledged the common spiritual heritage between the faiths.

Since assuming the papacy, Francis, who as Cardinal Bergoglio in Argentina was known to be close with Jewish leaders, has continued to cultivate relationships with Jewish groups.

In early September, Francis welcomed Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, to the Vatican and, according to AP reports of their meeting, spoke of a need for the church to look into the controversial Polish ban on the Kosher practice of slaughtering animals. After their meeting, Lauder said in a statement that “in the past 2,000 years, ties between the Catholic Church and Jews had never been this good.”

In the last week, the Vatican denied the request by the family of Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke for a funeral Mass. The Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), a breakaway Catholic sect still in dialogue with Rome, apparently offered to host the funeral, but then delayed the event due to outside pressure.

On Friday, the Vatican announced plans for Francis to visit Israel, perhaps as early as 2014, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Rosensaft sees Francis’s outreach to him as part of an ongoing evolution of understanding between the two religious traditions.

“I think having the pope raise the issue to this level means that we are going to hopefully have an integration of Holocaust memory not just into the Jewish theological framework but also into the Catholic teachings. Perhaps then we can move forward together.”

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Elizabeth Tenety
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  • allinthistogether

    Thank you for sharing this description of the efforts by these two leaders to bring focus onto the sacred in human lives and the need to continually move forward with love and justice, despite disputes about God, the traumas of past violence and the horror of ongoing violence. Each individual makes many choices daily regarding which path to take – this Pope and Rabbi are pointing out a hopeful path without dismissing the ambiguities of reality.

  • di89

    Well of course SSPX offered to do the funeral. If the Pope said oxygen was good for you, they’d hold their breath and turn blue.

  • FedUp1

    No, Priebke had excellent relations with two SSPX-associated priests.

  • Rongoklunk

    To say God was at the Holocaust boggles the mind. People were screaming for God throughout the holocaust. And his total absence was for many proof that no loving God could possibly exist. It created non-believers. And what use is a God’s “presence” at the horror?. What does that even mean? Some would say Satan was present at the Holocaust, not the loving God of the wholly babble.
    Here’s Primo Levi on a typical Auschwitz moment;
    “Silence slowly prevails and then from my bunk on the top row, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen. Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking at the light without saying anything and without even thinking anymore? Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again? If I was God I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.”

    From Primo Levi; If This Is A Man. 1959