Pope Francis honoured Slovakian Holocaust victims and atoned for Christian complicity in wartime crimes as he sought to promote reconciliation in a country where a Catholic priest was president of a Nazi puppet state that deported tens of thousands of its Jews.
“Your history is our history, your sufferings are our sufferings,” Francis told members of Slovakia’s small, remaining Jewish community, standing in the shadow of the country’s Holocaust memorial.
Even though St John Paul II made three trips to Slovakia, he never met here with the country’s Jews, evidence of the strained local Catholic-Jewish relations that endured in the post-war decades even with a Polish pope known for his outreach to Jews.
As a result, Francis’ welcome by the community on Monday, during the solemn 10-day period of repentance stretching from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, was a significant step forward and was hailed as historic by local Jewish leaders who said it was chance to look to the future.
The 84-year-old pope has appeared in good form, walking around to greet well-wishers and clearly enjoying the enthusiasm of Slovaks after being cooped up in the Vatican for over a year of coronavirus lockdowns.
He was solemn on Monday afternoon, listening intently via headphones providing simultaneous translation as he heard evidence from a Holocaust survivor about the horrors of the Shoah and the enduring pain of the Jewish community.
“Let us unite in condemning all violence and every form of anti-Semitism, and in working to ensure that God’s image, present in the humanity he created, will never be profaned,” Francis said.
Slovakia declared its independence from Czechoslovakia in 1939 and became a Nazi puppet state with politician and Roman Catholic priest Jozef Tiso becoming the country’s president.
Under his rule, the country adopted strict anti-Jewish laws and deported around 75,000 Jews to Nazi death camps where about 68,000 perished.
Tiso was sentenced to death and hanged in 1947, and over the years scholars have unearthed archives showing that the Vatican under Pope Pius XII did not approve of Tiso’s policies and intervened to halt the deportation of Slovak Jews in 1942, though they resumed two years later after Nazi troops entered Slovakia at Tiso’s request.
Now, only about 5,000 Jews live in Slovakia, a largely Roman Catholic country of 5.5 million currently ruled by a four-party centre-right coalition government.
Slovakia’s Catholic bishops over the years expressed regret for their wartime failings and asked forgiveness from the Jewish community, but an official process of dialogue only began after Slovak representatives from both faiths met with Francis at the Vatican in 2017.
The head of the umbrella group of Slovakian Jewish communities, Richard Duda, said at the encounter that Francis’ visit was “historic,” and a “turning point” in relations, and that dialogue was the only way to achieve peaceful coexistence.
“We hope that the sincerity and availability for an open dialogue will allow us to one day put a final point even on the dark sides of the complicity which, during the terrible world war 80 years ago, marked relations between the people of this land,” he said.
While Francis’ visit marked a new step in Catholic-Jewish relations, it also served to remind Slovaks that Catholics also saved lives.
A Holocaust survivor, Tomas Lang, cited a Vatican embassy official at the time, Monsignor Giuseppe Burzio, as someone who “unceasingly tried to halt the antisemitism of the murderous regime of the time”.
And a Slovak Orsoline nun, Sister Samuela, told Francis of the several instances of Jewish children and their families who were hidden in Slovak convents and even the Vatican embassy itself.
Overall by 2019, 580 Slovaks were honoured as Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.
The site of Francis’ encounter was significant: Bratislava’s Holocaust memorial stands on the site of a synagogue that was destroyed in 1969 by the communist regime to make room for a bridge.
“Here, in this place, the name of God was dishonoured, for the worst form of blasphemy is to exploit it for our own purposes, refusing to respect and love others,” he said.
“In this place, our histories meet once more.
“Here let us affirm together before God our willingness to persevere on the path of rapprochement and friendship,” Francis said.
Just last week, the Slovak government formally apologised for the racial laws that stripped Jews of their human and civil rights, prevented their access to education and authorised the transfer of their property to non-Jewish owners.
The government took action on the 80th anniversary of the Jewish Code, considered one of the toughest anti-Jewish laws adopted in Europe during the war.
Lucia Hidveghyova, a leading Slovak expert on Jewish-Catholic relations, called Francis’ meeting with the Jewish community “very important” and the fruit of improving relations that got a major boost after the 2017 Vatican encounter, which resulted in the formation of joint committees.
“It’s true than that in the last five years, the dialogue between them on the official level has moved forward more than in the previous 50 years,” she said in a telephone interview.
“I believe that (by coming) he wants to further encourage the dialogue,” she said.
Maros Borsky, secretary of the dialogue commission between the Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities and the Catholic Church, said the pope’s visit can only help improve relations going forward.
“What happened in the past cannot be fixed, but it’s necessary to look into the future,” Mr Borsky said.