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I Cannot Apologize

Editor’s Note: In late 1974, Father Michael J. Wrenn, director of religious education for the Archdiocese of New York, sent a letter to The Jewish Press asking for an apology from the paper’s popular columnist Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis.

Father Wrenn explained that he enjoyed reading The Jewish Press for its “fine articles on Torah, Talmud, and Midrash” that helped “deepen my knowledge and appreciation of the Jewish Tradition.” 

He noted that he’d grown up in a religiously diverse neighborhood in the Bronx, where “many of the young men and women with whom I was raised and whose friendship I continue to cherish were of the Jewish faith. To them and to their parents, I am and will continue to be indebted for a basic introduction to the philosophy, folklore, and spirit of Judaism – a spirit which traditionally has upheld the brotherhood and the dignity of all men.

But Father Wrenn had been dismayed by a recent column in which Rebbetzin Jungreis, writing about the Catholic Church’s long history of anti-Jewish teachings and actions, made reference to “Princes of the Church, cloaked in their vestments of hypocrisy.

Father Wrenn characterized that as “an anti-Catholic slur” and an example of “insensitive and groundless bigotry.

Rather than apologize, the Rebbetzin wrote a long, brutally frank, and painfully detailed essay reviewing the Church’s dreadful record in dealing with the Jewsand, for good measure, repeated her statement about hypocrisy and the princes of the Church.

The article appeared in the February 7, 1975 issue of The Jewish Press and caused an immediate sensation. The demand for reprints was so great that the article was published in pamphlet form and widely distributed.

Both Father Wrenn, a sincere and well-meaning man with nothing but good will toward the Jewish people, and Rebbetzin Jungreis, whose renown continued to grow in the decades following her response to his letter, are deceased. The Catholic Church has made great strides since 1975 in its relationship with the Jewish people, but the historical truths presented by the Rebbetzin can never be forgotten.

The following is an abridged and lightly revised version of her response to Father Wrenn that caused such a commotion 42 years ago.

Dear Father Wrenn,

Please believe me when I say I understand your feelings. I, too, believe all men are brothers, children of the same God, created by Him with love and equal in His eyes.

Since the genesis of our history, the Jewish people have lived for only one purpose: To serve our God, and through that service demonstrate our love for our fellow man.

Our father Abraham, the first Jew, challenged the Almighty Himself in order to save the people of Sodom, who had descended to the depths of depravity and decadence. Although these people wallowed in sin, they were nevertheless precious to Abraham, for he understood that they too belonged to the human race and were therefore worthy of redemption.

And so this was – and remains – the tradition of the children of Abraham: to save every life, to reach out with love to every person, regardless of race or creed.

In the long, glorious, and tragic history of the Jewish people, we have never coerced anyone into accepting our teachings. We have never imposed our beliefs upon any other nation. We have never forced anyone to convert, and certainly never resorted to the sword as a means of persecution.

In your letter you recall your childhood among the compassionate Jews of the Bronx whom you learned to love and respect. I remember my own childhood, in Hungary. On Sundays we stayed out of sight, for after church services the hordes of haters would pour out into the streets. “Let’s get the Christ killers!” was the rallying cry.

Not once, but many times I was beaten. Not once, but many times I witnessed the beating and torture of my fellow Jews, all in the name of the Christian savior.

We are the people who gave you your religion – and for 2,000 years not only did you never express a word of gratitude or acknowledgment, you demonstrated “Christian charity” through pogroms, expulsions, and ghettoization. Your forced baptisms caused the torture of our men and the slaughter of our children. The sword of the Church was drenched in Jewish blood as the Crusaders left terror in their wake.

I realize that what I have to say may be excruciatingly painful, but it is time to communicate and build bridges that will allow us to exist in harmony and create a better world. These bridges, though, cannot be built unless we are totally honest. Therefore, please accept my words in the spirit in which they are offered, for they come from the depths of my heart.

A Sad and Painful History

The seeds of anti-Semitism are manifested in the Gospels, the writings of the Church fathers, and the dogma of the papacy.

Consider the stance of the Church vis-a-vis our houses of worship, our people, and our way of life. For centuries our synagogues were referred to in the most pejorative terms.

Constantine the Great called them “brothels.”

The Italian priest Jerome, one of the early fathers of the Church, described them as “synagogues of Satan.” He later was canonized as a saint.

Another saint, the archbishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom, called the synagogue a “place of prostitution, a den of thieves.”

Consider that our people were charged with the crime of deicide (killing God). Saint Augustine declared that the Jew was condemned to perpetual servitude and dispersal for slaying Jesus. The Jew was depicted as Cain the murderer, consigned to wander from country to country, suffering all forms of humiliation and oppression.

Our holy books were plundered and burned, our sacred literature mutilated and confiscated. We were expelled from country after country that felt the unconverted Jew polluted Christian society, just as later the racial Jew polluted German society.

Toward the end of the fifth century, Pope Gelasius (sainthood would be bestowed on him as well) instituted the Good Friday prayer in which the Jew was described as “perfidious.” It was only with the advent of Pope John XXIII in our own day that the term was deleted.

Easter in particular became a time of tragedy for our people. Terror, lynchings, and pogroms were the product of this holiday season. “Kill the Jews” was the rallying cry on the streets of Europe.

Even more heinous were the sordid blood libels that accused the Jews of murdering Christian children and using their blood in the baking of matzah. We lived in fear each Passover season, wondering which community would be wiped out next.

Throughout Europe these hideous libels persisted and gave rise to the persecution of innocent Jews. Shrines and churches were erected to the “martyred children” whose blood allegedly was used for matzah.

Jews were portrayed as aligned with Satan, possessed of demonic powers.

Jews were charged with poisoning wells and spreading the plague.

Jews were characterized as economic exploiters.

Even in the world of the arts Jews were portrayed in the most shameful manner. Paintings and sculptures, Byzantine dramas and passion plays, portrayed Jews as monstrous and demonic, as sly and cunning Christ killers.

Our way of life became a travesty. In 1555 Pope Paul IV ordered the Jews of Rome to live in a ghetto and wear a badge of shame that would make them readily identifiable. Numerous other European cities confined Jews to ghettos and forced them to endure every form of indignity.

Hitler had to improve but little on the protocols of Church leaders. He simply echoed the medieval Christian stereotype of the Jew as a criminal, a parasite – evil incarnate. He revived book burning, ghettoization, and exclusion of  Jews from the normal economic and cultural life of society, from schools and public affairs. He borrowed the medieval use of the Jewish badge.

Yes, the German extermination of Jews was the logical extension of 2,000 years of anti-Jewish tradition initiated and nourished by the Catholic Church.

By the time of the Holocaust it was no longer necessary to kill Jews one by one or to burn them at the stake. Now factories of death could harness technology in the service of genocide.

Perhaps you will protest that the Church cannot be condemned for the Nazis’ savagery. But the fact is that while our people were being systematically slaughtered, the Princes of the Church in their vestments of hypocrisy remained silent.

Yes, there were individuals who dared to go against the tide, Christians who risked their very lives to save Jews.

The great humanitarian who later became Pope John XXIII tried his best to save Jews. While he was papal nuncio in Turkey, he asked for an audience with Pope Pius XII in order to try to save several hundred Jewish children in Bratislavia, Czechoslovakia. The pope would not grant him an audience and the children ended up in the gas chambers.

I believe hypocrisy is actually a mild word when you consider that Princes of the Church and many among their flock either condoned by silence or assisted as willing participants in the mass extermination of the Jews.

And should you argue that the Church was impotent in the face of Hitler’s organized madness, I would only remind you that the Church vigorously combated the Nazis’ euthanasia campaign and managed to put a stop to that horror. The Church also succeeded in protecting so-called non-Aryan Catholics (Catholics of Jewish descent or birth.)

But there never was an open condemnation of the Nazis’ genocidal intentions regarding the Jews. Nor were Nazi butchers of the Catholic faith excommunicated. Let us understand that nearly 80 percent of the population of Nazi-occupied Europe fell under the sway of the Church of Rome, but the exterminators were never even threatened with excommunication.

In the decades since the Holocaust, some Church leaders themselves have recoiled at the ghastly silence. Perhaps the most eloquent testimony was delivered by Boston’s Cardinal Cushing, who in a speech in 1964 said:

“I ask whether we ought not to confess humbly before the world that Christians too frequently have not shown themselves as true Christians in their relations with their Jewish brothers. How may have died because of the indifference of Christians, because of the silence? If not many Christian voices were lifted in recent years against the great injustices, let our voices humbly cry out now.”

Israel’s Redemption

In 1948, on the heels of the worst catastrophe in our long history of catastrophes, the Jewish people reestablished a sovereign  state in their biblical homeland – just as Holy Scripture had promised.

In response, the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, declared that “Modern Israel is not the true heir of biblical Israel…. Therefore the Holy Land and its sacred sites belong to Christianity, the true Israel.”

When Pope Paul VI made his historic pilgrimage to Israel in 1964 he never once referred to the state by name. Why?

Why was the papacy silent when Jews were forbidden by the Jordanian government from praying at the Holy Wall?

Why was the Vatican silent when the tombstones of our sages were desecrated and used as latrines?

Why was the pope silent while Jewish sacred sites in Jerusalem were being demolished?

In the ominous days before the Six-Day War, when many hoped against hope that the Church of Rome would use its influence on behalf of Israel, why did the Vatican content itself with issuing vague statements that glibly spoke of peace?

But as we know, a great miracle occurred and David defeated Goliath. The very earth trembled with wonder and Jerusalem became ours again. And may I remind you that the valiant soldiers of Israel risked their lives and in many cases lost them in order to protect your churches and shrines.

It is truly ironic, then, that the silence of the Church was broken only when Jerusalem became Jewish again. It was only then that the pope found his voice and demanded the “internationalization” of the Holy City.

Could it have been that the resurrected state of Israel posed a fundamental threat to Catholic dogma? After all, hadn’t the Church insisted since its inception that the Jews would wander the earth, banned from the Holy Land, until they accepted the “true savior”?

It is truly unfortunate that our blessed homecoming after two millennia embarrassed the Church and upended its theology. But as much as we would like to accommodate Rome, we shall never again depart from our land.

You believe in God and in His Bible. So surely you are aware that today you are witnessing the deliverance of the Children of Israel, wrought with trials, signs, and wonders.

Through the great miracles and mercy of God we have returned to our land. After 2,000 years the world beholds the dawn of Israel’s redemption.

No, I’m afraid I cannot apologize. Not after 2,000 years of unremitting oppression and torture. God will judge. All I can do is hope and pray that the evil will not be repeated.

Nevertheless, let us forever bury the hatreds of the past so that we may usher in the day when all men shall dwell together in universal peace and, as the prophet Isaiah states:

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”

Let us prepare for that great day so that we may stand upright before our Creator.

Most sincerely yours,

Esther Jungreis

– a daughter of the Jewish people, a graduate of Bergen-Belsen, and heir to Israel reborn.