Nourishing the Ties Between Judaism and Catholicism

Interview With Baruch Tenembaum, Founder of Wallenberg Foundation

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JERUSALEM, JULY 8, 2004 ( As the 18th international meeting of the Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee was closing in Argentina, ZENIT interviewed Baruch Tenembaum, an Argentine-born Jew who established the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and the Angelo Roncalli Committee.

The Wallenberg Foundation was named after the Swedish diplomat who helped save tens of thousands of Jews from the Nazis during World War II.

The Angelo Roncalli Committee recognizes the work of diplomats who risked their lives to save Jews persecuted by Nazism.

At the time of the interview, Tenembaum was traveling in Israel.

Q: Mr. Tenembaum, your visit to Israel is full of initiatives.

Tenembaum: So it is. We are working intensely to continue with the organization of the commemorative events of the 40th anniversary of the declaration «Nostra Aetate,» the 42nd anniversary of our interreligious dialogue movements and, also, the 70th anniversary of the death of the greatest poet of the Hebrew language, Najman Bialik, whom I had the opportunity and privilege to translate during my years of study as a seminarian, as well as other greats of Jewish poetry like Uri Zvi Grinberg.

Not only must we remember those who saved bodies but also those who every day redeem our souls.

Q: In an unusual gesture, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, will reserve, in his tight schedule in Argentina, time this Saturday for the Wallenberg Foundation. Why?

Tenembaum: On Saturday, July 10, in the morning, the «Monsignor Angelo Roncalli» kindergarten room will be inaugurated. The event will be presided over by Cardinal Walter Kasper.

It will take place in the Raoul Wallenberg Community Center, headquarters of the Unemployed Workers Movement of La Matanza, in an extremely poor slum of Buenos Aires province.

School materials and clothing will be donated. In the Educational Complex, named after Raoul Wallenberg since May 14, 2004, there is a kindergarten and productive undertakings such as a bakery, a silkscreen printing workshop, a publishing house, a sewing workshop, and a trade school.

On Saturday the 10th in the afternoon, after the Shabat, the Raoul Wallenberg International Foundation and the Angelo Roncalli Committee will confer on Cardinal Kasper the Memorial Mural Award for a lifetime’s dedication to causes of understanding and reconciliation between Jews and Catholics.

The presentation will take place at the headquarters of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary. Undoubtedly, an unbeatable interfaith framework.

The award is a replica to scale of the mural that remembers the victims of the Holocaust, and those killed in the attacks against the Embassy of Israel …, installed in Buenos Aires Cathedral in April 1997 by the then primate of Argentina, Cardinal Antonio Quarracino.

A replica in the Mural’s original size will be installed this year in the «Vaterunser» church of the city of Berlin. The event is being organized by the Wallenberg Foundation and the German Evangelical Church.

On the occasion, the Wallenberg Foundation will announce the granting of the Angelo Roncalli scholarship to a Jewish seminarian for his academic dedication, spirit of solidarity, and human values placed at the service of Jewish-Catholic reconciliation. Another interfaith gesture of which we are proud.

Q: How are the programs related to the Wallenberg Foundation dedicated to paying homage to the saviors of humanity and those promoting interconfessional dialogue?

Tenembaum: Both have as their common denominator the famous phrase: «And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.» It was no accident that the dictum was the inspiration of Hillel and later of Jesus.

The saviors are the light, the personification of the concept of the Messiah, understood as the opportunity that each one of us has to do good, to do something for our neighbor.

Hope is the concept that unites both Jews and Catholics. Love, solidarity and courage placed at the service of one’s neighbor are like the water that runs down from the mountain to fertilize the sowing and allow it to prosper.

This allegory alludes to the need for us all to come down to the plain, to the level of the common people, and not stay on the heights, with those who see the world from on high.

There is also a very cynical interpretation of «thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,» which claims to understand the dictum as loving the neighbor so long as he is like yourself. An interpretation that can only be accepted provided that the being of «yourself» refers to the human race.

It is no accident that this movement was born in the Argentina republic, a country where there were no ethnic struggles as in other latitudes of the planet.

We celebrate the fact that, 42 years after starting this endeavor, led among others by Monsignor Ernesto Segura, auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires; Rabbi Guillermo Schlesinger; and Jorge Luis Borges, today other organizations of diverse confessions raise these flags.

Q: Among the saviors there are notable figures such as Raoul Wallenberg and many others who even risked their lives to save those of different cultural and confessional origins who were persecuted.

Tenembaum: So it is. There are no better examples to serve as guides of action than those given by these persons.

As you well point out, outstanding among the thousands of heroes is Monsignor Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, and another Italian, Giovanni Palatucci, the police chief of Fiume during the Second World War, who will soon be beatified by the Supreme Pontiff.

They are, in all truth, the other face of indifference, a very dangerous attitude that is functional to the realization of evil.

It is much more comfortable, but also extremely risky to practice indifference and to abstain from assuming a commitment. On this topic, important thinkers have written some memorable aphorisms.

Edmund Burke wrote: «All that is necessary for evil to prosper is that the good man do nothing.» Einstein said: «The world is a dangerous place. Not because of those who do evil, but because of those who do nothing to avoid it.»

And, among others, George Bernard Shaw pointed out: «Indifference is the essence of humanity.»

Let us recall what pastor Martin Niemoller said, later popularized by Bertolt Brecht: «First they came for the Communists, but as I was not a Communist, I did not raise my voice. Then they came for the Socialists and the trade unionists, but as I was neither, I didn’t raise my voice. Then they came for the Jews, and as I am not a Jew, I did not raise my voice. And when they came for me, there was no longer anyone left to raise his voice to defend me.»

Q: We must not forget Aristides de Sousa Mendes, that notable Christian who avoided the extermination of thousands of persecuted people by issuing visas in his capacity as consul of Portugal in Bordeaux, in the south of France, in 1940.

Tenembaum: Precisely, Sousa Mendes was remembered by our Foundation last June 17 with the organization of more than 80 tributes in 30 countries.

Sousa Mendes was a pioneer and is the paradigm of the one who sacrifices everything to be on the side of the weakest. He defied the Portuguese dictatorship which ordered him to do nothing, and because of this died in the most terrible poverty, condemned and sick.

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