French Catholics apologize for World War II silence on Jews
October 1, 1997
Web posted at: 9:07 a.m. EDT (1307 GMT)
DRANCY, France (CNN) -- France's Roman Catholic clergy have
apologized for the church's silence during the systematic
persecution and deportation of Jews by the pro-Nazi Vichy
More than 1,000 Jews and Christians gathered Tuesday for the
emotional ceremony on the grounds of Drancy, the transit camp outside Paris where Jews languished in squalid conditions
before being shipped to the concentration camp Auschwitz in
About 76,000 Jews, including 12,000 children, were deported
from France between 1941 and 1944. Only about 2,500 survived.
Standing before a sealed cattle car like the ones used to
transport Jews to their deaths, Bishop Olivier de Berranger
read from a statement atoning for the silence of the church
and its clergy from 1940 to 1942.
"We confess that silence in the face of the Nazi's
extermination of the Jews was a failure of the French
church," he said. "We beg God's forgiveness and ask the
Jewish people to hear our words of repentance."
"We recognize that the church of France failed in its mission
to educate consciences and thus bears the responsibility of
not having offered help immediately, when protest and
protection were possible and necessary, even if there were
countless acts of courage later on," Berranger said.
He was chosen to speak on behalf of French Catholics because
his diocese, Saint-Denis, includes Drancy.
The timing of the apology was significant. It came 57 years
to the day in October 1940 when Nazi-occupied France enacted
its first laws against Jews, an action that took place four
months after World War I hero Philippe Petain assumed power
and dissolved the parliament.
The apology also comes one week before the trial of Maurice
Papon, the highest-ranking Vichy official ever tried on
charges of complicity in crimes against humanity.
The former police supervisor in Bordeaux is charged with
signing arrest orders that led to the deportation of 1,690
Jews, including 223 children. His trial is expected to shed
light on the role of the French administration in the
Jewish leaders, visibly moved during the ceremony, welcomed
the confession by the Catholic Church.
"Your words of repentance constitute a major turning point,"
said Henri Hajdenberg, president of the Representative
Council of Jewish Institutions. "Your request for forgiveness
is so intense, so powerful, so poignant, that it can't but be
heard by the surviving victims and their children."
Standing nearby was Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the
Jewish-born archbishop of Paris, whose mother was deported
through Drancy and died at Auschwitz.
'For me, it's too late'
But for some, the apology came too late.
Estelle Bonnet, a French Catholic who risked hiding and feeding a Jewish friend for more than two years during the
war, said she could never forgive the church.
"For me, it's too late. Perhaps it's a good thing to demand
forgiveness from God and that God forgives, but it is too
late," she said.
Her friend Eva Berlinerblau said she's alive today because of
"When you sense the hangman's noose awaits you, and you find
an open door where you are welcomed, given food and a feeling
of security ... that has no price," Berlinerblau said.
Pope encouraged the apology
The apology seemed to mirror Pope John Paul II's call in 1994
for the church to own up to the sins of its members as it
approaches the third millennium.
However, both the Vatican and John Paul have defended Pope
Pius XII, the pope from 1939 to 1958, against charges he
remained silent or did not do enough to prevent the
The anti-Jewish laws enacted in France were stricter than
those that had already gone into effect in Germany. Among
other things, the French measures banned Jews from working in
professions such as law, medicine, teaching and civil
The laws also prohibited Jews from owning property, kept
their children out of public parks, required them to ride in
the last subway car and later forced them to wear a yellow
Star of David, a sign of Judaism.
Correspondent Jim Bitterman contributed to this report.