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Reflections on repentance - How to Speak of Reconciliation after Auschwitz
Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini
An extract from an address by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, Archbishop of Milan on 9 September l995 at the Congress of the European Ecumenical Centre for Peace on "The Ecumenical Reading of the Word"
Cardinal Martini placed his address in the context of the next European Ecumenical Assembly which will be held in Graz in June 1997 on the theme "Reconciliation, gift of God and source of new life". He recalled with thanksgiving the first European Ecumenical Assembly which was held in Basle in 1989 and looked forward with hope to the second. He began by citing Matthew 5:24: "If you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first and then come back and present your offering". Recounting the parable of The Two Brothers1 in the context of the heroes of the Shoah, he continued:
The Shoah and Teshuvah
The Shoah, conceived by the leaders of Nazi Germany as the systematic and total annihilation of the Jews, was carried out in Europe between 1939 and 1945. This horrendous crime was perpetrated in nations who, by their history, culture, religious traditions and scientific progress, were considered as most civilised. Notwithstanding repeated attempts at revisionism that lack credibility, it is Auschwitz that encapsulates the evil and the horror of all the other death camps for people today.
The Pope also singled out Auschwitz in a speech he gave on 9 May 1995 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. He said "Auschwitz, along with so many other camps, remains the dramatically eloquent symbol of the consequences of totalitarianism. On this fiftieth anniversary it is a duty to make a pilgrimage in memory and heart. As I said in 1969 during a Mass celebrated in a place near Auschwitz, I kneel on this Golgotha of our contemporary world. As I did then, I renew in spirit my pilgrimage to these extermination camps. First of all, I pause before the stone that bears the Hebrew inscription, to remember the people whose sons and daughters were destined to total extermination, and to repeat that no one has the right to pass by in indifference".
Today, it is still difficult to realise that this abysmal evil was part of the history of Europe and humanity.2 We do not yet assume seriously enough the duty of meditating on the Shoah. The very definitions "crime against humanity" (a term of international law), or "sin against God and against humanity" (an expression of John Paul II), although well-intentioned, have not penetrated into the depths of the consciousness of the generations after the Shoah. I think very few feel and understand the open wound in the flesh and heart of a people who had lived in Europe for two millennia, nourished by the Bible and the Talmud in the Yeshivot of Eastern Europe, or integrated into
Western Europe after centuries of persecution without ever renouncing their own traditions.
Perhaps it is precisely now, fifty years later, that the time has come to repeat more forcefully that the duty of healing those wounds is incumbent on us, because it is here that this terrible extermination was perpetrated. And this, not from a concept of collective responsibility, but of moral solidarity in the face of the night of evil which seeks to engulf us also today. If we are ready for this radical change of heart, then we will be open to conversion - teshuvah - and reconciliation.
We will then be able to look at Israel with new eyes; that people painfully humiliated, deprived of millions of lives, one million of them children. Yet, what is surprising, is that this people, so wounded, did not cry out for vengeance, did not hassle Europe with demonstrations, did not sow bloody terrorism. For fifty years Israel has been seeking security in its own land and in the Diaspora, and it does not cease to question itself and the world about the Shoah. The message of the prophets of Israel - "to build peace and justice" - continues to inspire the ideals and choices of this people, within the very contradictions that are the sad realities of our human condition of sin and imperfection.
Thus we can well recognize in the Jewish people the fraternal gesture of the one who, although unjustly struck, still stretches out his arms to raise a song of confident love toward God and to every human being. And this gesture takes on even more meaning if we understand that this happens here, now, after the Shoah, which was the ultimate attempt to suppress God by suppressing God's people.