ISRAEL HONOURS JOHN PAUL II
BY CINDY WOODEN
THE ISRAELI government took the unusual step of sending an official delegate to John Paul II’s beatification on Sunday, choosing a government official who survived the Holocaust because he was entrusted to a Catholic family.
The delegate, Yossi Peled, told reporters that “Pope John Paul II is not just another pope for us”, but was responsible for establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and for promoting better relations between Catholics and Jews.
Mordechay Lewy, the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, said that because the beatification was a religious ceremony and an internal matter of the Catholic Church he did not expect rabbis to lead Jewish religious delegations at the Mass.
Mr Peled, 70, said that his parents, who were Polish Jews, went to Belgium thinking they and their family would be safe. He was born in Belgium and he said that when he was six months old his parents became aware of the danger facing Jews, so they entrusted their infant son to a Catholic family.
“I grew up as a happy Christian boy,” he said.
His parents, aunts and uncles all were taken to Auschwitz, he said, and only his mother survived.
Mr Peled said he had not known he was Jewish until his mother returned to claim him when he was eight years old.
She had been part of Dr Josef Mengele’s Block 10 medical experiment laboratory, he said. Because of her physical conditions, she could not take care of her son, so she put him in a Jewish orphanage in Belgium. He and 300 other children moved together to Israel a year later.
Mr Peled told reporters he had no idea whether his Catholic foster family had him baptised, but he said: “I used to go to church every Sunday. And I knew that before I go to bed, I have to cross myself. And I knew when I sat down at the table, we have to cross the bread.
“Suddenly, all of this was forbidden,” he said, once his mother reclaimed him. Learning he was Jewish and being told he must not pray as a Christian any more was difficult for a boy of eight years, he said.
“Every day I was waiting for dark and sitting in my bed, [so] I could pray to Jesus,” he said.
Mr Peled said John Paul II grew up in Poland in “the midst of an atmosphere of publicly sanctioned antiSemitism” and yet managed to forge friendships with Jews and establish a new relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.
“His apology for the suffering of the Jewish people was nothing short of heroic,” he said. “Indeed, there is probably no man more fitting to represent the true spirit of Christianity than Karol Józef Wojtyła.” Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of the New Jersey based Centre for Inter-religious Understanding, and a professor at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas in Rome, told the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano that “the Jewish people have the highest opinion of and the highest respect for John Paul II”.
The rabbi said: “He was the first pope to enter a synagogue and to ask for forgiveness for past acts of anti-Judaism, using the Hebrew word teshuvah which means not only asking for pardon, but also the determination to move in a new direction.” Rabbi Bemporad said that, in addition to establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, “everywhere [John Paul II] went in the world, he always met with the local Jewish community to establish ties of friendship and mutual understanding. No pope before him had ever done so much,” he said.