Fifty years ago, on June 3, 1963, a great and brave friend of the Jewish people passed away. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was born into a modest Italian family. He reached the summit of the Catholic hierarchy and died as Pope John XXIII, but he was fondly nicknamed “the Good Pope”.
Roncalli was a remarkable man who epitomized courage, passion for justice and a strong spirit of reform. His record as Pope is well documented and widely known. In 1961, he commissioned the drafting of the revolutionary Decretum de Judaeis (“Decree on the Jews”) which served as a basis to Nostra Aetate (Our Age), a declaration of the relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, which was promulgated in 1965 by his successor, Pope Paul VI, after Roncalli’s death.
The Decree on the Jews is a complex document but among other considerations, it stipulates that Jews who lived during Jesus’s era, let alone future generations of Jews, cannot be blamed for his death. In addition, Pope John XXIII instructed that an offensive remark about Jews (who were portrayed as “perfidious”) be erased from the Good Friday prayer.
Many other anecdotes surrounding his Papacy clearly show his innermost feelings towards Jews. One of them relates to his famous statement: “I’m Joseph, your brother”, referring to his middle name “Giuseppe” (Joseph, in Italian), in clear Biblical allusion of what Joseph said to his brothers in Egypt.
Before his papacy he also demonstrated his unconditional love for the Jewish people and for the State of Israel. Back in the 1940’s, during the dark days of the Holocaust, Angelo Roncalli served as Apostolic Delegate in Istanbul and in this position he went out of his way to save as many Jews as possible. His door was always open to the Jewish Yishuv leaders involved in the rescue efforts, especially Haim Barlas, who documented the aid he got from Roncalli.
According to historical accounts, Roncalli urged his superiors at the Vatican to respond to the plight of the Jews. He sent Palestine certificates of immigration via diplomatic courier to Angelo Rotta, the Papal Nuncio in Budapest, he interceded before the King of Bulgaria to save Jews and some believe that he even provided Certificates of Baptism.
Back in 2011, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation submitted a massive file (the Roncalli Dossier) to Yad Vashem, with a strong petition and recommendation to bestow upon him the title of Righteous among the Nations. Unfortunately, we have not received an official reply as of yet.
Yaakov Herzog , son of Chief Rabbi Itzhak Halevy Herzog and brother of the late President of Israel, was a high-ranking and promising Israeli diplomat who passed away at an early age. In an official letter he sent in 1953 to the Israeli consul in Milan, he referred to Roncalli in an unequivocal fashion:
I am wondering whether Cardinal Roncalli, based now in Venice, is the same one who served not long ago as Nuncio in Paris and during WWII as Apostolic delegate in Ankara? If this is the man, I can tell you that he is one of the Righteous among the Nations!
Another less known facet of Roncalli is related to the establishment of the State of Israel. This was independently related to us by the late Moshe Tov (one of the founding fathers of Israeli diplomacy and by former Minister of Absorption Yair Zaban. In his young days, Mr. Zaban was the personal assistant of Dr. Moshe Sneh, one of the leaders of the Yishuv. Back in 1947, before the fateful UN 181 resolution (the partition plan), Moshe Shertok (Sharet) was deeply worried that the Vatican would cast a negative influence upon the Latin American countries who were inclined to favor the partition plan. Shertok instructed Sneh to contact Vatican leaders in order to ask them to refrain from talking the Latin American countries out of their original intention.
Through a friend (the convert priest Alexander Glasberg, later recognized as Righteous among the Nations), Sneh met with Roncalli, the Nuncio in Paris in those days, and the latter promised him to help to the best of his abilities. In fact, Roncalli arranged a last-minute meeting between Sneh and the then Secretary of State of the Vatican, Cardinal Domenico Tardini, and he even especially travelled to Rome to be close to Sneh and hear his report of the meeting.
Sneh met Tardini and it turned out that he had managed to convince his interlocutor to refrain from any interference. Eventually, most Latin American states voted for the partition plan, paving the way to the establishment of the State of Israel. So in this case too, Roncalli showed once more his allegiance to the Jewish people.
For many years now, our Foundation has been working relentlessly to honor Roncalli and to spread his magnificent legacy. We promoted the naming of streets, schools and a kindergarten after him, the erection of busts and monuments, the creation of educational programs and so forth.
A few weeks ago we learned that the city of Ashdod was favorably considering the possibility of naming a street after him and we continue our campaign with other cities and have asked Minister Gilad Erdan to contemplate the possibility of a special stamp issue bearing Roncalli’s semblance.
We are very happy that one of our first members, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (better known nowadays as Pope Francis), who has always been very supportive of our mission to keep alive the legacies of the rescuers, is likely to follow the same path set by Angelo Roncalli, fostering a brotherly dialog between Christian and Jews.
Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was a remarkable human being – a role model to whom we all owe a debt of eternal gratitude.
The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation is a non governmental organization dedicated to developing educational programs and public awareness campaigns based on the values of solidarity and civic courage, ethical cornerstones of the Saviors of the Holocaust.