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Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (later known as Pope John XXIII) was born 128 years ago, on November 25, 1881.
His role as pope is well known, especially his decisive contribution to the establishment of a respectful ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Jews, as set out in the Decretum de Judaeis ("Decree on the Jews") which was drafted for the Second Vatican Council in 1962. The draft openly mentions the "wrongs done to the Jews in the past or in our time. Whoever despises our persecutes this people does injury to the Catholic Church."
He served as Father of that council and insisted on dealing with the teachings of the Church about Judaism and Israel. This led to his beatification in 2000.
But Roncalli's actions prior to his papacy are less well known. As the apostolic delegate in Istanbul during the Holocaust, Angelo Roncalli played a major role in the efforts to save Jews.
A thorough investigation launched by the International Angelo Roncalli Committee, Casa Argentina en Israel - Tierra Santa and the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, with the participation of world-renowned scholars, shows that Roncalli went out of his way to help the beleaguered Jews. Among many other deeds, he was responsible for dispatching "certificates of immigration" to Palestine via the Vatican's diplomatic courier as well as "certificates of baptism." He also openly intervened in favor of Slovakian and Bulgarian Jews.
The three aforementioned NGOs are due to present the findings of the investigation to Yad Vashem and request the bestowal of the title of Righteous among the Nations on Angelo Roncalli.
EVEN LESS known is what was related to me in a recent meeting I had with former minister Yair Tzaban regarding Roncalli's warm attitude toward the Jews and his contribution to the establishment of the State of Israel.
During the 1950s, Tzaban was the personal assistant to the late Dr. Moshe Sneh, who in 1947 held the senior post of head of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency in Europe and was also in charge of the aliya and illegal immigration portfolio. It was Sneh who revealed Roncalli's involvement.
In 1947, Moshe Shertok (Sharett), Sneh's boss at that time, was worried about the voting pattern of the Latin American countries in the upcoming UN General Assembly that was about to address the partition plan. He had great concerns about the influence of the Vatican on those countries, fearing that it would guide them to vote against the plan, contrary to their original intentions. Shertok called Sneh from Lake Success and instructed him to try and persuade the Vatican not to object to the voting preferences of the Latin American countries, where the Catholic Church wielded an unparalelled status.
Shertok knew that in order for the partition to be accepted, a majority of two thirds would be required. The Latin American countries were inclined to vote in favor of the motion. Without their favorable vote, the motion would be rejected.
Sneh was befuddled by Shertok's request. He confided to his assistant (in Yiddish): "How could I, Moshe ben Shimon Klainboim, from the small village of Radzin, possibly reach the pope?" Eventually, Sneh turned to his friend, the priest Alexander Glasberg, with whom he had been in touch due to the latter's involvement in assisting the illegal immigration efforts.
Glasberg said to Sneh that he knew the right person for the job, "a great humanist who helped the Jews during the Holocaust," and introduced him to Angelo Roncalli (who at that time was the nuncio in Paris).
Sneh's meeting with Roncalli was characterized by a warm atmosphere. Roncalli promised he would do his utmost to help, and a few days later he confirmed an audience with the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Domenico Tardini. The meeting was scheduled for October 3, 1947, and Roncalli moved forward his trip to Rome to be close to the scene, just in case he would be needed.
While Tordini did not make any promise to Sneh, the latter felt that he might have succeeded in having conveyed his case. After the audience with Tardini, Sneh met Glasberg and Roncalli and reported his impressions to them. Roncalli was not satisfied. Obviously, he expected a firm commitment from Tardini and went even further by hinting that "Pope Pius XII might lose the opportunity of redeeming himself for his lack of action in favor of the Jews during the Holocaust."
Eventually, it would appear that Sneh's mission turned out to be successful indeed. To be sure, other factors may have contributed to this achievement, but one could assume that the meeting with Cardinal Tardini had a positive impact. Most Latin American countries voted in favor of the motion. A few abstained. Only Cuba voted against it.
COINCIDENTALLY, SOME years before my conversation with Tzaban, Moshe Tov, a skillful Israeli diplomat who like me was born in Argentina, related to me the lobbying efforts that preceded the voting. Indeed, Tov was an instrumental figure in persuading the Latin American countries to vote for the partition plan prior to Sneh's mission. Glasberg (together with his brother Vila) was posthumously recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous among the Nations in January 2004. This was not an easy decision, for the priest was originally a Jew who had converted to Christianity, and according to Yad Vashem's rules, Jews cannot be awarded the prestigious title.
Despite this obstacle, Tzaban and others had managed to persuade Yad Vashem that for this purpose Glasberg should be deemed Christian. Part of the story told here was included in Tzaban's speech at Yad Vashem, at the award ceremony.
In a single decade, Angelo Roncalli managed to help the Jews both during the Holocaust and in the establishment of the State of Israel.
Jews and Israelis, as well as people from all faiths who adhere to the most basic values of human solidarity, owe this great hero eternal gratitude.
The writer is the founder of The International Raoul Wallenberg organization.
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