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French Catholics apologize for World War II silence on Jews

Berranger 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 regime.

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 Poland.

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 Holocaust.

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 Bonnet's compassion.

"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 Holocaust.

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 service.

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.


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