The September 6 opening of “A Blessing to One Another/Pope John Paul II & The Jewish People,” the inspiring exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage/A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, was a remarkable happening for me as a survivor who experienced Poland’s pre-war antisemitism.
“If Jewish museums had patron saints,” said museum director David Marwell, “ours would have been John Cardinal O’Connor, who…nine years ago on September 11(!),1997, delivered the invocation at [the museum’s] dedication: ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, I thank you for this humbling privilege….As a Christian, to ask forgiveness for all Christians, who by action or inaction, by word or by silence, helped in any way to make the horrors of the Shoah possible…to have…contributed to those horrors….I pray that through this museum, every Jew will be…prouder to be a Jew. And those of us who call ourselves Christians will become ever prouder of our Jewish heritage.’”
Noting that the exhibit was “but a handful of blocks from the most vicious attack perpetrated upon civilians in the U.S.,” governor George Pataki cited the 9/11 tragedy as “a horrible example of religious intolerance [combined] with people who have the fanaticism and belief that their way of life is the only way of life.”
He lauded John Paul II as “the first pope to visit a synagogue, the first…to have the Vatican recognize the State of Israel, the first pope to publicly apologize for actions of Christians against Jews for the past 2000 years….[This] exhibit will enable people of all faiths to celebrate the contributions of a life of a…man who stood for the opposite of those who attacked us on 9/11. As we celebrate the fifth anniversary…how awful is it that antisemitism…is on the rise not only in barbaric but also in civilized parts of the world.”
Acknowledging “head of the economic development for New York State” Charles Gargano, Pataki smiled: “[Museum chairman] Bob Morgenthau would not let me leave office…without one last effort.
So…in this year’s budget…there will be $10 million [more] coming from the state of New York, and Charlie assured me that the funds will be forthcoming very soon.”
During his tour of the exhibit, the governor paused before a torah scroll and wrote a kvitl (a message) which he then inserted into a crack of the exhibit’s replica of the Kotel - Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall.
The evening’s guest roster included Prof. Yaffa Eliach, founder & president, Shtetl Foundation; Father Michael Graham, president, Xavier University (Cincinnati); Bishop Robert Brucato, **Vicar General representing Cardinal Egan; Archbishop Celestino Migliore, Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See at the United Nations; Gary Krupp, founder of Pave the Way Foundation; Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman, International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations; Poland’s consul general, Krzystof Kasprzyk; and Jerzy Kluger, John Paul II’s lifelong Jewish friend from Wadowice, Poland.
Currently engaged in research for a book entitled “The Anatomy of Persecution: A comparative Study of the Roman Persecution of Christians and the Christian Persecution of Jews,” John Maxwell O’Brien, a professor of history at Queens College, held the September 13 audience at the college’s LeFrak Concert Hall in unsettling silence as he reflected on the topic: “Romans, Christians and Jews: Antisemitism in Historical Perspective.” O’Brien emphasized: “It is dislike of the unlike, us vs. them…majority-minority…a mystique develops as to who and what ‘they’ are.”
Using references attributed to Tacitus, Pliny, Nero, Alfonso of Castille and others, O’Brien exposed the trail of pain and hate that morphed from the Roman anti-Christian assault to Christian demonization of the Jewish people.
A few of O’Brien’s citations…
“Rome: Christians abandoned the [Roman] gods when prosperity depended on gods…they mutilated and destroyed representations of gods; ‘They are impious’….
“13th century Europe: ‘Jews, instead of venerating Jesus, humiliated him, put him on the cross.’
“Rome: ‘Christians believe they alone know the right way to live…Who do they think they are?’
“Middle Ages: ‘Jews are arrogant, separating self’….
“Rome: ‘You can’t trust Christians or Romans who are Christians’….
“Middle Ages: ‘Jews are untrustworthy, disloyal.’
O’Brien pressed on: “Romans accused Christians of cannibalism at banquets where non-Christian children were baked in pies, sliced and distributed….For Jews there’s the Passover matzoh-blood libel,” and so much more. He addressed the ongoing puzzle of why, after living peacefully side-by-side for generations, there occur blood-letting ‘them vs. us’ eruptions even in our modern era.
“Though antisemitism has declined in the past 25 years, noted O’Brien, “people are not telling the truth…I still hear stories about Jews [but] now I have the courage to confront them.”
The evening was emceed by Queens College’s new Judaic Studies directors: Professor William Helmreich, professor of Sociology and Judaic Studies at City University Graduate Center and Mark Rosenblum, associate professor of History, director of the Queens College Michael Harrington Center.