A New Generation of Interreligious Leaders is Shaped by Yad Vashem Visit

Author: Emily Judd10-15 min read

One of the most memorable moments of the Russell Berrie Fellows annual program in Israel is the special visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem.

Holocaust survivor and renowned author Elie Wiesel once said, “Whoever listens to a witness, becomes a witness,” while speaking at Yad Vashem. Since 2008, over 100 interreligious leaders from around the world have become witnesses to the unprecedented genocide of the Holocaust through this experience specially coordinated by Angelica Berrie, Chairperson of the Russell Berrie Foundation, who strongly supported and desired this learning moment for each Fellow during their study tour to Israel which is part of the yearlong interreligious studies program in Rome.

Nadiia Sybira of Ukraine (Cohort XI), who visited the Remembrance Center in 2019, said she will never forget hearing the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, which are integrated throughout the memorial – in video interviews, photographs, and diaries.

“I could see so much despair and spiritual struggle,” she said. “This tragic event should be addressed as a warning: never again in the history of humanity can this crime be repeated.” After the completion of her Fellowship, Sybira has gone on to study at the Cardinal Bea Centre for Judaic Studies in Rome, Italy, which is dedicated to the promotion of a theological knowledge and understanding of Judaism from both Jewish and Christian perspectives.

Now more than ever, Yad Vashem and other places that record and preserve Holocaust memory are important, according to A.J. Boyd from the United States (Cohort II), who visited the remembrance center with the Russell Berrie Fellowship in 2011.

“The generation who experienced the Shoah is passing,” said Boyd. “We have to rely on the preservation of memory.”

The Museum’s commemoration is especially crucial for Christians, according to Taras Dzyubanskyy, a John Paul II Center Leader for Interreligious Dialogue from Ukraine (Cohort III) who now acts as the Center’s senior alumni adviser.

“For Christians, the horrors of the Shoah which took place in Europe, should be forever carved into the collective memory so that none of this can happen in the future,” said Dzyubanskyy.

The museum is a reminder that anti-Semitism did not end with the Holocaust – it is still alive and increasing today, said Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director emeritus and founder of the John Paul II Center.


Witness and Teacher: Rabbi Jack Bemporad

Pope Paul VI once wrote, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”

Both witness and teacher, Rabbi Jack Bemporad, founded the Russell Berrie Fellowship at the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue back in 2008. In addition to teaching the Fellows and other students in the subjects of Judaism and interreligious dialogue at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Rabbi Bemporad also shares with them his heartbreaking experience fleeing Nazi-occupied Italy in the late 1930s as a young Jewish boy.

Rabbi Bemporad fled his home country of Italy in 1938, following the publication of the Fascist document, in which leading Italian academics and scientists contributed to a report that Italians were descendants of the Aryan race. The document was the basis for subsequent Italian racial laws against Jewish citizens implemented in October 1938.

“We left almost immediately after that because the Jews had no rights,” said Rabbi Bemporad. “I was kicked out of school – they told me you couldn’t go to school because you are Jewish.”

Bemporad escaped the fate of thousands of Italian Jews, who died in Nazi camps. He would later enter the Rabbinate, inspired by a feeling that he had to do something for the survival of the Jewish people.

A.J. Boyd heard Rabbi Bemporad’s testimony about the tragic events of his childhood seventy years after they occurred, in 2011.

“It is a fascinating juxtaposition, for someone with a lifetime of experience and study to reflect on events that are among their earliest memories. It is always good to know someone’s personal motivations for their vocation and work,” said Boyd.

Rabbi Bemporad has dedicated his career to improving relations between believers of different religions, especially Jewish and Christian believers. He has been teaching at Pontifical Universities since 1998 and the Russell Berrie Fellowship grew out of his scholarship, inspiration and commitment.

Rabbi Bemporad said that the Yad Vashem visit opens Russell Berrie Fellows’ eyes to the question: How could society and science be organized with the sole purpose of killing Jews?

“The Holocaust shows us the full consequences of barbarism. Why do we organize a society that allows this to happen? How did we allow Hitler to be produced?” he asked.

Bernadette McGonigle from Ireland (Cohort XII) said Yad Vashem “takes you on a journey showing the slow but stealthy rise of anti-Semitism throughout Germany and Europe, dispossessing people of their rights and their property and isolating them from the general population – purely on the basis of being Jewish.”

“Those who survived, like Rabbi Jack Bemporad, are determined to educate the world about the dangers of allowing the slow, but steady, display of anti-Semitism to remain unchallenged,” she added.

“Righteous Among the Nations”

At the beginning of her visit to Yad Vashem, John Paul II Center Leader Elena Dini of Italy (Cohort VII) found herself “thinking how easy it is for human beings to slip into this aggression towards others.”

“But there is so much each one can do to oppose that and the “Righteous Among the Nations” exhibit reminds us that,” said Dini.

The visit to Yad Vashem includes studying about the “Righteous Among the Nations,” the non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

“Rescue took many forms and the Righteous came from different nations, religions and walks of life. What they had in common was that they protected their Jewish neighbors at a time when hostility and indifference prevailed,” according to Yad Vashem.

Famous films have been made to memorialize these individuals including “Schindler’s List” – based on the German industrialist Oskar Schindler who employed over 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust thus saving their lives – and “Rome, Open City” – based on the actions of Catholic priest Father Giuseppe Morosini who hid and fed Jewish people in Rome during the German occupation of the city.

Yad Vashem has recognized Italian priests who saved Jewish people during the German occupation of the country. In the city of Assisi, Father Rufino Niccacci, who was father guardian of the St. Damiano Monastery, secured the lives of approximately 100 Jews by disguising them as monks and nuns and hiding them in monasteries and convents. He also supplied Jews with false papers that would enable them to survive in other places, according to Yad Vashem.

Another Italian priest honored is Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa of Florence, who spearheaded the rescue of hundreds of Jews in the city. He recruited among clergy members for those who would help rescue Jewish people, and sheltered Jews in his own palace.

One of the people housed in the Cardinal’s palace was a French Jewish woman named Lya Quitt, who fled from France to Florence in the beginning of September 1943.

“[She] was brought to the Archbishop’s palace where she spent the night with other Jews who were being sheltered there. The following day they were taken to different convents in the city,” according to her testimony, preserved Yad Vashem.

One famous Catholic layman in Italy, Gino Bartali, also became well known for using his position to save Jewish lives during World War II. Bartali was a champion road cyclist who won the Tour de France twice.

When the Germans began occupying Italy in September 1943, Bartali used his cycling talent to transfer forged identity documents to Jewish people across the country.

These are just three of over 24,000 individuals who have been recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations.” Their stories are a major focus of the Fellows’ visit who learn about these and other people’s personal commitment during the Shoah.

Christian-Jewish Dialogue in a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise

According to Rabbi Bemporad, Yad Vashem demonstrates why religions should unite to combat anti-Semitism, and become the conscience of society in a time when anti-Semitism is increasing.
“Places like [the former Nazi concentration camp in Poland] Auschwitz and Yad Vashem represents the necessity for religions to play a different role than they had historically, and show that religions must be the voice of humanity,” said Rabbi Bemporad.

Sybira said the Holocaust must be addressed in Christian-Jewish interreligious dialogue and that Christians must acknowledge the role their religion played in advancing anti-Jewish sentiment that evolved into anti-Semitism.

In the past decades there have been many efforts to set a good ground for a Christian-Jewish dialogue. Already in 1965, the Roman Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate has recognized the great “spiritual patrimony” common to both faiths.

“The Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone,” the document states.

Boyd, who is now a teacher of world religions, said he believes Christianity is almost unknowable without Judaism, echoing what the Pontifical Biblical Commission clearly stated in its 2001 document “The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Jewish Bible”: “Without the Old Testament, the New Testament would be an incomprehensible book, a plant deprived of its roots and destined to dry up and wither” (n°84).

“Christianity begins in Judaism. How can you know Christ if you do not know Judaism? How can you receive the Gospel if you do not know Tanakh? It is not possible,” said Boyd, adding that interreligious dialogue provides the foundation for this recognition.

McGonigle said the classes she has taken with the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue in 2019-2020 have opened the Fellows’ eyes “to the riches of the Hebrew Bible” and how there is much more to learn between the two religions.

“If one just focuses on the Hebrew Bible, known as the Old Testament in Christianity, then there is so much that could be shared and discussed,” she said.

Through the Russell Berrie Fellowship, a new generation of leaders have been educated about the Holocaust – through firsthand testimony thanks to the sharing and stories heard from Rabbi Bemporad, Jewish-Christian Dialogue classes at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and the impactful visits to Yad Vashem.

McGonigle stated the museum’s acknowledgment of individuals who stood up to the Nazis and gave assistance to the Jewish people – described as “the Righteous among the Nations” – is an inspiration to all people today.

“The glimmer of hope is that we, as individuals, have a choice and can make a real difference. Like the Righteous among the Nations, we are each asked to stand up for what we know to be right and act on it,” she said.

“The choice is ours.”