VATICAN CITY (CNS) — At a meeting with members of Rome’s Jewish community, Pope Francis denounced anti-Semitism and recalled the 1943 deportation of more than 1,000 of the city’s Jews to the most notorious Nazi death camp — an incident that has proven a major source of tension between the papacy and Jewish leaders.
“It’s a contradiction for a Christian to be anti-Semitic, his roots are in part Jewish,” the pope said Oct 11. “May anti-Semitism be banished from the heart and the life of every man and woman.”
Pope Francis gave a delegation led by Rabbi Riccardo Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, a message commemorating the 70th anniversary of the deportation of Rome’s Jews Oct. 16, 1943. Of the more than 1,000 people sent to Auschwitz by the German occupiers that day, just 16 eventually returned.
“While we return in memory to those tragic hours of October 1943, it is our duty to keep before our eyes the destiny of those deportees,” the pope wrote. “To imagine their fear, their pain, their desperation, so as not to forget them, to keep them alive in our memory and in our prayer, along with their families, their relatives and friends who mourned their loss and who remain disheartened by the depths of barbarity to which humankind can sink.”
Pope Francis voiced hopes that memory of the atrocity would inspire “new generations not to allow themselves to fall into line, not to let themselves be caught up by ideologies, never to justify the evil they encounter, and not to lower their guard against anti-Semitism and against racism, regardless of where they are from.”
In his spoken remarks, the pope said “this anniversary also reminds us how the Christian community has known how to reach out to its brothers in difficulty during their darkest hours.”
Jewish leaders and a number of historians have criticized the wartime Pope Pius XII for not speaking out against the deportations. When Pope Benedict XVI visited Rome’s main synagogue in January 2010, he heard the president of Rome’s Jewish community lament the “silence of Pius XII.” A prominent Italian rabbi boycotted that event to protest Pope Benedict’s decision to make Pope Pius eligible for beatification.
But Pope Francis noted that the “Papal Basilicas, in accordance with the wishes of the pope,” were among the church institutions that “opened their doors to provide a fraternal welcome” to Jews fleeing the Nazis.
“I like to underline this aspect,” Pope Francis said, “because while it is true that it is important for both sides to deepen their theological reflection through dialogue, it is also true that there exists a vital dialogue, that of everyday experience, that is no less fundamental.”
The pope recalled his own warm relations with Jews as archbishop of Buenos Aires, where he celebrated Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah in local synagogues and co-authored a book with a prominent rabbi. Pope Francis said he hoped to “contribute here in Rome, as bishop, to this closeness and friendship.”