Lublin's archbishop heralds new era of Polish openness to Jews

Ahead of Israel visit, Josef Zycinski defends Holocaust-era Pope Pius XII as a pragmatist.

lublin archbishop 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
lublin archbishop 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Archbishop of Lublin, Josef Zycinski, said this week ahead of a visit to Israel that there was a "new era" of Polish openness to Jews and defended controversial Holocaust-era Pope Pius XII as a "pragmatist." "I would say that the situation has changed in free Poland," said the archbishop in a telephone interview from Lublin. "In the late 1970s it was impossible to have access to the parts of Auschwitz that showed the enormity of the Jewish Holocaust," said Zycinski, who will participate Monday in a symposium entitled "Confronting a New Reality: The Polish Catholic Church, the Jews, and Israel." "Poles were out of touch with the long Jewish history in Poland. But today a younger, more open generation of Poles is growing up with a more nuanced understanding of Jewish reality." The symposium is being sponsored by The Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, The Adam Mickiewicz Institute, The Polish Council of Christians and Jews, and Laboratorium Wiez in the framework of Polish Year in Israel 2008-2009. Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland, will also take part. Zycinski, known for his willingness to confront the Polish role in helping the Nazis perpetrate the Holocaust, said that in September he organized a meeting with students from Berlin's Reform Abraham Geiger College and Catholics. "For many it was the first time they had come across a Reform Jew. All they had known was the stereotype Orthodox Jew," he said. Zycinski, unlike other Catholic Polish clergymen, has publicly accepted the Polish people's guilt for the massacre at Jebwadne, a village in eastern Poland, which was first revealed in 1999. For instance, Polish Cardinal Josef Glemp, known for his anti-Semitic comments, said after attending a mass in honor of Jedwabne's Jews in 2001 that Poland's surviving Jews should apologize for having brought Communism to Poland. However, Zycinski pointed out that ironically, Poles' anti-Communist sentiments pushed many to support Israel in the Six Day War at a time when the USSR was openly supporting Egypt and other Arab states. "As a student in Krakow I remember the strong pro-Israel sentiments which were really an expression of opposition to Communist rule," he recalled. Zycinski also commented on the debate surrounding the beautification of Pope Pius XII. According to some Jewish leaders, Pius XII, who held the Papacy during the Second World War, did not do enough to save the Jews from the Nazis. In contrast, Zycinski pointed out that saving a Jew was punishable by death under Nazi rule. Therefore, the pope faced a dilemma. "If he came out with a public announcement calling on Catholics to save Jews, and thus express in a clear way Christian principles, he would have risked his life and those of many others. "Instead, he chose a different, more pragmatic way of showing solidarity with the Jews. He encouraged Catholic parishes to issue certificates of baptism to Jews." Dr. Rabbi Ron Kronish, head of the ICCI, said that the symposium was important for three reasons: "Israel needs to better understand contemporary Poland and not remain mired in images of the past, no matter how traumatic they might be. And part of that understanding is getting rid of the preconceptions that all Poles are anti-Semites," said Kronish. "Also, Israelis need to understand that the Polish Catholic Church has undergone major changes of thinking about Jews and Judaism. People do not know this because they continue to live in the past. "Finally, Poland is making in effort within the framework of Polish-Israel Year to better understand that for a Polish Jew, Israel is central to the formation of his or her Jewish identity."