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An Open Letter
American Jewish Congress
Pope John Paul II
The following open letter was sent to Pope John Paul II to explain the deeply-felt
reaction to the audience that he granted to Kurt WaJdheim. Because we believe it is important to
share this explanation with the widest possible audience, we reprint the letter below.
Many people, not only Jews, reacted with in
credulity when they learned that you agreed to
receive Kurt Waldheim at the Vatican. Even the
National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the
United States seemed disconcerted by your deci
sion. At the same time there are many Catholic
faithful and perhaps even Jews who are honestly
puzzled by the reaction of Jewish leaders to your
decision. After all, as your own spokesman has
said, doesn’t the Pope meet with all kinds of
questionable heads of state?
We believe it is terribly important that we give
clear and unambiguous witness to the central
moral issue that was raised by your decision to
receive Waldheim: it is the fact that you and the
Vatican see Kurt Waldheim as just another head
of state. Sadly, this indicates to us that despite
the Church’s pronouncement on this subject, the
significance of the Holocaust and the uniqueness
of the evil it represents is not really part of the
consciousness of the Church.
It is not Waldheim the man, but the symbol he
has become, that is at issue.
We cannot undo the agony and suffering in
flicted on mankind and most particularly on the
Jewish people by the likes of this man, nor
should we visit the sins of the murderers on their
children. But surely the most sacred command of
our generation is memory: not to forget how
silence became indifference, indifference became
complicity, and finally turned into a nightmare of
slaughter for millions upon millions. Surely that
much—that debt of memory—we owe not only the
victims, but ourselves and our children.
Kurt Waldheim represents the antithesis of
memory. He is the ultimate symbol of denied and
evasion. He wishes to inflict on the victims of the
Holocaust the final indignity of forgetfulness—to
erase even the memory of the bestiedity of the op
pressors and of the suffering of their victims. So
he insists, first, that he was nowhere near where
the crimes were committed; then, when caught in
that lie, that he was unaware that the Jews, one-
third of the population of Salonika, Greece, were
all rounded up and deported to the crematoria in
Auschwitz; and, finally, although there is
evidence of his own complicity in these
atrocities—evidence sufficiently weighty for the
U.S. Justice Department to bar him from this
country as a suspected war criminal—that he was
just a good soldier obeying orders.
June 25, 1987
Is it possible that this man, who has become
the symbol not only of an evil Nazi past, but of
current efforts to diminish, falsify and forget the
Holocaust, is just another unpleasant head of
state for the supreme head of the Catholic
Church? That, incredibly, is what your spokesman
has said, and that is what the welcome you per
sonally extended this man inescapably implies.
How is one to explain so profound an insensitivi
ty to the meaning of the Holocaust, so painful a
failure of the moral imagination, by the custodian
of the Catholic conscience?
How paradoxical, and how deeply disquieting,
that secular governments like the United States
were determined to put politics aside to take a
stand on moral principle by isolating Waldheim,
while the Vatican was guided by political con
siderations and put moral principle aside!
Is it possible. Your Holiness, that in
Waldheim’s forgetfulness there is an echo,
however distant, of the Church's forgetfulness as
well? Has Your Holiness dealt with the indif
ference of the Catholic churches in Europe to the
fate of the Jews during World War II? Not a
word on the subject has been uttered in any of
your Papal visits to various European countries
and to the Death Camps. Despite the extraor
dinary heroism of so many individual Catholics,
isn’t it true that, along with so much of the rest
of the world, the official churches were largely
silent £ind abandoned the Jews in their agony?
And if the Church, to which millions look for
moral guidance, cannot yet come to terms with
its past, if it cannot respond to the demands of
sacred memory, what hope is there for others?
These are some of the peunful questions that
are raised by the audience you grsmted Kurt
Waldheim. We have participated in the dialogue
with the Catholic Church for the past 20 years,
and we value its significant achievements. But
this dialogue can no longer avoid urgent ques
tions that so deeply agitate our consciences and
souls. The meeting scheduled for September 11 in
Miami is not where these questions wiU be ad
dressed. It is therefore not where we can be.
It pains us to have to speak these words, for
we are deeply respectful of your person and your
office. But, were we not to do so, we would be
betraying the memory of the six million, and it is
now so sadly clear that if we do not bear this
witness to their memory, no one else will.
Theodore R. Mann,
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We welcome contributions that will enable us to give wider dissemination to this message.
American Jewish Congress
15 East 84th Street, NewY'ork, NY 10028