Pope John XXIII .
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
While the Vatican officially stood silent as the Nazis murdered six million Jews in the Second World War, a future leader of the Holy See was doing all he could to save the lives of his "brothers."
Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli, who would become Pope John XXIII in 1958, served as the Vatican's apostolic delegate in Istanbul during the first five years of the war. Acting swiftly, he issued baptism certificates, intervened the Vatican with the British to issue immigration visas to Mandatory Palestine and corresponded with the leaders of Eastern European countries to annul, or at the very least delay, the deportation of their Jewish citizens, ultimately allowing more to escape the hold of the Nazis.
Roncalli emphasized his desire to help in a letter to Ira Hirschmann, a Jewish-American representative of the American War Refugee Board in Turkey in 1944.
"I repeat that I am always ready to help you in your charitable work as far as in my power and as far as circumstances permit," he wrote, as told in "Diplomat Heroes of the Holocaust," by historian Mordecai Paldiel.
But while his efforts during the war stood out among other high-ranking members of the Holy See, Roncalli entrenched himself as a true friend of the Jewish People after the war.
In the fall of 1947, on the eve of the Partition Plan to grant the Jewish People a state in their historical homeland, the leadership of the Jewish settlement in Mandatory Palestine was concerned the Vatican would try to convince the Latin American countries to vote against the plan.
After Zionist leader Moshe Sneh met with Roncalli, the future pope arranged meetings even persuaded the secretary of state of the Vatican not to interfere, and in the end 13 voted for, six abstained, and only one country voted against.
Another critical role the pope played in Jewish-Catholic relations was forming the basis of the "Nostra Aetate" document, which among other guidelines, decried antisemtism, validated the eternal covenant God made with the Jews and declared baseless the charge that the Jewish People were responsible for the death of Jesus.
John XXIII did not live to see the document come to light, however, having died two years prior to its publication.
Reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Jewish People reached a peak in 1994, with Pope John Paul II establishing formal diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel – the fruits of the labor that Pope John XXIII had begun more than three decades prior.
Rabbi David G. Dalin summed up the admiration the Jewish People have for "il papa buono," the good pope.
“In the Jewish community he has been recognized and revered, together with Pope John Paul II, as one of the 20th century’s greatest papal friends and supporters of the Jewish People."
On November 25, 1881, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was born in Sotto il Monte. He died June 3, 1963, in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican City.
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