Pope John Paul II

Dialogika Resources

Address to the Central Council of Jews in Germany

Berlin, Germany

Honored Guests, Dear Brothers,

It is with pleasure and a sense of gratitude that I avail myself of the opportunity to meet with you again on this my third visit to Germany. Our meeting today is taking place in Berlin, in this city, which the National Socialists made the center of their criminal dictatorship and which until very recently endured enormous suffering as a consequence of that dictatorship; a meeting of this kind is of special importance.

Particularly Berlin's Jewish community, which had exerted such a strong influence on cultural and academic life in the city, suffered massive losses in the dark era of National Socialism and became very small. Still it continues to be very active and this is a sure sign of hope.

Based on their calling and their history the Jewish people have been uniquely singled out to make known God's desire for the salvation of all mankind (see Dei verbum, 14). The unimaginable suffering your people have endured provides a horrible example of the evil that can occur when man in overweening pride and arrogance distances himself from God and the commandments. The Jewish people share with Christians the belief that God is the creator of the world and the Lord of the universe and that man was created in his image, as is written in the first book of the Bible: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." (Gen.1:27)

This sameness with God's image underlies the inviolable dignity of man and the human rights that derive from this dignity. As such, respect for God and human dignity are very closely connected with one another. The oppression experienced during the Nazi regime of terror showed that without respect for God respect for the dignity of man is lost. As a result of that reign of terror there were many who raised questions concerning God, who had permitted that horrible disaster to happen. But even more unsettling was the realization of what man is capable of when he does not respect God and what kind of face humanity can take on without God.

Today the Church is honoring two priests, representative of many others, Karl Leisner and Bernard Lichtenberg, who on the basis of their faith resisted the inhuman ideology of National Socialism and paid for their resistance with their lives. It was cathedral deacon Bernard Lichtenberg, in particular, who bore witness to the dignity God has given all human beings. We see in their testimony the power of that which seems to be powerlessness, the power of those who know God and whom God knows. When he sees the sufferings of his chosen people in slavery, God says "I know their sorrows" (Ex.3:7). We discover in their testimony the profound meaning of the expression victor in vinculis (victor in bonds), which applies to both of them, and we understand what Karl Leisner wrote in his diary: "If I can withstand the scrutiny of God's judgment, then what do I have to fear from men?"

Bernard Lichtenberg saw with his own eyes what man is capable of doing to his fellow man when, on November 9-10, 1938, he witnessed the horrors of the Jewish pogroms. That evening he said from the pulpit of Saint Hedwig's Cathedral: "Outside the temple is burning - it, too, is a house of worship." And he began praying publicly every evening in thecathedral "for the persecuted non-Aryan Christians, for the Jews". In the years that followed he also prayed for "the prisoners in the concentration camps, for the millions of nameless and stateless refugees, for the wounded, dying and fighting soldiers on both sides, for the bombed cities in friendly and enemy territory" (taken from the minutes of an interrogation dated October 25, 1941). Two years later he died while being transported to the concentration camp of Dachau .

There are burdens placed on us by remembrance. But today we are also reminded of the precious historical fact that Bernard Lichtenberg was not alone in his support of those persecuted by the National Socialist regime. This fact reflects a commitment on the part of many Catholics who, at the risk of being killed, acted alone or in groups to provide help, often doing so clandestinely. This also included efforts, i.e. of protests and pastoral statements, on the part of the Church hierarchy to try to prevent the inhuman Nazi system from carrying out its horrible deeds.

Representative of the many who offered both resistance and assistance let us call to mind someone who lived in this city, Margarete Sommer, whose "Relief Agency for Non-Aryans" attempted to protect fellow human beings from the National Socialists; let us call to mind Cardinal Konrad von Preysing, the Bishop of Berlin, who supported resistance against the Hitler regime to the best of his ability, as well as Maria Terwiel, a young woman who helped Jewish fellow citizens by supplying them with identification papers and food rationing cards and who was sentenced to death for "assisting the enemy".

Even though historians have shown that there were many priests and lay Catholics who turned against the terror regime and that numerous forms of resistance arose in the everyday lives of the people, there were nonetheless too few who resisted. Today we all owe these people gratitude and profound respect. What they did and their memories will always be more than just a perpetual example to us. At the same time they are an appeal to Christians and Jews to join together in fighting for the dignity of all human beings wherever this dignity continues to be or is again being threatened. This includes in particular the fight against any form of anti-Semitism so that a phenomenon like the Shoah can never occur again.

In connection with my visit to the Rome synagogue on April 13, 1986, I pointed out "that the Church of Christ discovers its 'bond' with the Jewish tradition by reflecting on its own mystery. For us the Jewish religion is not something 'extrinsic,' but rather in a certain way belongs to the 'intrinsic" part of our own religion. As such, our relationship with the Jewish religion is unlike that with any other religion." Further intensification of this relationship continues to be a major interest of the Church. In this connection the Second Vatican Council called for an intensive dialogue between the two religions aimed at "promoting mutual knowledge and respect." This dialogue is to be supplemented by a "dialogue of life through which believers of different religions bear witness before each other in daily life to their own human and spiritual values, and help each other to live according to those values in order to build a more just and fraternal society" (Redemptoris missio, 57). The Church in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany will be making a special effort to promote a dialogue of this kind. It has already shown how much this dialogue means to it through a wide range of different activities.

And it has been happy to note that the Jewish congregations have not only viewed these efforts sympathetically, they have responded by giving their cordial and active support.

A message of life is issuing forth from this city today aimed at achieving the co-existence of Jews and Christians in peace and mutual understanding, a life that does not exclude people of other convictions. At the same time the objective is to assume common responsibility for shaping a humane future.

Today our praise and thanks are directed to God. We also direct to him our request that he give his blessing to our common cause and efforts. May it be granted to Germany and to the rest of Europe that they will resist the forces of death, that they will open themselves up to the message of life, and walk the path into the third millennium under the banner of new hope.