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Poland's church tries to follow pope's lead in reconciling with Jews

Posted: Friday, October 13, 2000

WARSAW, Poland (AP) -- A rabbi digs soil from the ground where a synagogue once stood. Across the market square, a Roman Catholic archbishop performs a similar rite at the site of a former church that, like the synagogue, was destroyed by Nazis in World War II.

The soil is passed solemnly in bowls along two chains of people -- one of Holocaust survivors, a second of Poles who helped shelter Jews during the war -- to a young Jew and a young Pole who used it to plant two symbolic grapevines.

Such a scene of reconciliation would have been difficult to imagine just 10 years ago in this predominantly conservative Catholic country where Europe's largest Jewish minority was all but wiped out in the Holocaust.

The poignant ceremony held recently in the southeastern Polish city of Lublin underscored efforts by Polish Catholics and Jews to see life through each other's eyes as part of a worldwide reconciliation.

It is inspired to no small extent by Poland's favorite son, Pope John Paul II, and his effort to reach out to Jews.

''It's been a continuing evolution for the past 10 years,'' said Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, a former church spokesman. ''Thanks to the pope, his tremendous work, his personality, we have a greater understanding of who we are for each other.''

The Polish church has moved cautiously, but its hierarchy took two big steps earlier this year.

At an outdoor Mass in Warsaw in May celebrating two millennia of Christianity, the Polish church's leader, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, pointedly asked for forgiveness for priests who still tolerate anti-Semitism.

That was followed by a sweeping letter of apology issued by a Polish bishops conference in August. It condemned ''our sins from the time of Shoah -- indifference and hostility'' and called for a fight against anti-Semitism.

Father Michal Czajkowski, who participated in an intense debate over the letter, called it ''a difficult compromise.'' He said some bishops questioned the need for such a letter at all.

Their anxiety reflects a feeling among many Poles that they are being unfairly cast as an anti-Semitic nation, and that Jewish activists are at least partly to blame for seeming to forget that Poles also suffered under Nazi and communist horrors.

''The Catholic and Polish side keep apologizing to everybody all the time,'' said Stefan Niesiolowski, leader of the Christian-national faction in the governing Solidarity bloc. ''Without presenting a broader context, there would have been an impression that the blame is only on one side.''

For centuries non-Catholic religions found Poland to be more tolerant than other countries on the continent, partly because it lacked a strong central government and church courts could not enforce their will. Before World War II, Poland had Europe's largest Jewish community, 3.5 million people, or 10 percent of the population.

But anti-Semitism grew in Poland, as in much of Europe, in the 1930s when people sought scapegoats for economic hard times and other social ills.

During World War II, some of Nazi Germany's most notorious death camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, were on Polish soil.

Though some Poles risked their lives to shelter Jews from the slaughter, some also are accused of participating in it. In one incident often cited by Jewish activists, Poles in the eastern village of Jedwabno are alleged to have massacred 1,500 of their Jewish neighbors in collaboration with the Nazis. Only recently, following the fall of communism, have Polish prosecutors begun a credible investigation.

Of the half-million Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, many left for Israel or were driven out in the communist-era pogrom of 1946. In 1968, communists again used Jews as scapegoats in an effort to quell social unrest, forcing thousands more to leave.

Today there are about 20,000 Jews in Poland, a country of 39 million people.

Vestiges of anti-Semitism nurtured by the communist regime persist.

World Jewish leaders still bristle at the Polish church's initial failure to comprehend their sensitivities to the erection of crosses by conservative Catholics within sight of the memorial Death Wall at Auschwitz.

They also note the lack of outright condemnation of notoriously anti-Semitic remarks by Father Henryk Jankowski, a former Solidarity movement chaplain, and Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, who runs a popular conservative Radio Maryja station.

Father Stanislaw Musial, a Jesuit who worked to move a Carmelite convent away from Auschwitz in 1993, criticized the bishops conference for failing to address such specifics.

He said their August letter should have condemned explicitly such offenses as language deriding Jewish customs and anti-Semitic graffiti that are still widespread in Poland.

''Only concrete examples speak to imagination,'' he said.

In August, he wrote a series of articles in Poland's largest daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, urging the church to remove eight 18th century paintings from churches in the city of Sandomierz. The paintings graphically illustrate an old Catholic belief that Jewish religious rituals included the killing of Christian children.

Bishop Stanislaw Gadecki, chairman of the Committee for Interreligious Dialogue, responded that only the local bishop could decide the fate of the paintings. The issue remains unsettled.

Nevertheless, the healing effort continues. In an emotional speech at the reopening of a synagogue last month near Auschwitz, Bishop Tadeusz Rakoczy of Bielsko Biala urged people to remember the ''harmonious coexistence of Poles and Jews'' in centuries past.

''Not every person in the Catholic church is pleased with that new openness,'' said the chief rabbi for Warsaw, Michael Schudrich, who took part in the Lublin vine-planting ceremony. ''But at least we're talking, we're thinking about it. And that's why I'm hopeful.''

Such gestures as the August letter are ''very big steps,'' said Simcha Keller, chairman of the Jewish community in Lodz. ''But they have to translate into small steps in parishes and among clergy.''

In some places, they do. The Rev. Stanislaw Bartminski, a priest in the village of Krasiczyn, called on young people to renovate a neglected Jewish cemetery. At a recent ceremony, Catholic and Orthodox clergy attended while a rabbi recited kaddish, the traditional mourners' prayer.

''Such a project is still a sensation,'' Bartminski said. ''But people, especially the young, realize we need it. We have much in common with Jews, after all.''

End adv for Friday, Oct. 13, and thereafter



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