COMMENTARY: Breaking the silence on the Holocaust

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Rabbi Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.)

UNDATED _ Although my Bar Mitzvah took place in Alexandria, Va., a few years after the end of World War II, I have never forgotten the startling words my childhood rabbi, Hugo Schiff, privately told me on that long ago day.

Because Rabbi Schiff and his wife, Hannah, escaped from Nazi Germany in the 1930s and found a safe haven in the United States, his words had an enormous impact on me when I first heard them and have remained with me ever since:"As you enter the world, no matter what you hear, always remember that the Nazis corrupted every institution of society _ religion, politics, government, medicine, education, law, journalism, the arts, labor, military _ everything was poisoned ... everything. It was a time when cowardice walked the land." I have been thinking a lot about the rabbi's words these past few weeks as the code of carefully contrived silence about the Holocaust has at last been broken.

The leaders of the very institutions my rabbi had in mind are finally telling the truth about what really happened in those terrible years when 6 million Jews were murdered in Europe, including 1.5 million children.

The upcoming trial of Maurice Papon, a Vichy France official who is charged with sending Jewish children to death camps, will shed new light on a despicable chapter in French history.

For over 50 years the French have deceived themselves and the world with the myth that the Vichy government, which closely cooperated with the German occupiers, was somehow an"aberration"and not truly French. Nonsense.

During World War II, 76,000 French Jews were deported to death camps like Auschwitz. Incredibly, many of the victims were rounded up, not by the German occupiers, but by the Vichy government which willingly did the Gestapo's job with a French accent.

On Sept. 30th, the Roman Catholic Church in France, speaking through its bishops, formally apologized to the Jewish people for its silence in the face of craven French collaboration with the German occupiers during the Holocaust.

The French bishops used extraordinary language in their apology to the Jews:"... The vast majority of Church officials ... stuck to an attitude of conformism, caution, and abstention. ... The Catholic Church ... knows that conscience is constituted by memory and that no individual can be at peace with himself if his past is repressed or dishonest. The time has come for the Church ... to acknowledge the sins committed by its sons, and to ask forgiveness from God and from man. ..."It is important to admit the primary role ... played by the constantly repeated anti-Jewish stereotypes wrongly perpetuated among Christians in the historical process that led to the Holocaust. ..."Today, we confess that silence was a mistake. ... We beg God's forgiveness and ask the Jewish people to hear our words of repentance." Even more recently, leaders of the Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross finally admitted what many people had long known: the ICRC, that global paragon of respectability and decency, actively aided the Nazis during the Holocaust.

One of the ICRC's most egregious acts was its wartime visit to Terezin, the Nazis'"model"concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

Instead of probing deeply into the conditions of the helpless Jewish prisoners and discovering the radical evil taking place there and throughout German-occupied Europe, the ICRC issued a dishonest report that was an ugly cover-up directly aiding the Nazis in their efforts to conceal the grim reality of Terezin.

The ICRC's confession of guilt along with continuing revelations about the immoral wartime behavior of Swiss bankers clearly reveal the heinous roles played by hallowed Swiss institutions and government leaders.

Good-bye to the land of sweet chocolates and superb watches. Hello instead to the land of greedy gold profiteers and deceptive officials who besmirched the Red Cross emblem with their acts of Nazi collaboration.

A few days after the French bishops' public confession, the French Medical Association apologized for its treatment of the Jews during the Nazi years:"History demands that we acknowledge that the basic values of our profession were violated." The medical group sorrowfully admitted French physicians had participated"in a tragic and shameful operation of discrimination and exclusion concerning Jewish doctors." I regret Rabbi Schiff is not alive today to hear the current flood of revelations although they would not have surprised him. After all, he taught me long ago that"cowardice walked the land."I have never forgotten that truth and neither should the world."