“In later times, however, God’s name was dishonored: in a frenzy of hatred, during the Second World War more than 100,000 Slovak Jews were killed. In an effort to eradicate every trace of the community, the synagogue was demolished,” the pope said.
At the start of the encounter, Francis heard testimony from one of the around 3,500 Holocaust survivors from Slovakia, the 79-year-old professor Tomáš Lang.
Lang, who was born in May 1942, was saved from the Holocaust by nurses who hid him and other children in a hospital ward after his father died fighting in Ukraine and his mother died on a death march in Germany.
The nurses wrote the names of infectious diseases on the doors to the wards to deter armed men from entering. The hospital was later bombed and only 15 children and one nurse survived.
Lang, who said he had now been married 55 years and had two children and six grandchildren, explained that he had always been sorry that he could not find the nurse to thank her.
“I am of the generation that survived because of brave men who did not capitulate in the face of evil and, risking their lives, hid us until liberation,” he said. “For the past 20 years, I have dedicated myself to the history of the Shoah in southern Slovakia. I write a memento for the future, so that the past never happens again.”
The Ursuline nun Sr. Samuela also spoke at the event. She recounted several stories of times the congregation of sisters managed to hide Jewish children and adults in Slovakia, saving their lives.
“We are grateful that our sisters -- who have perceived the sacredness of every human being, created in the image of God -- have had the grace to do something to save the lives of these people,” she said.
Francis referenced the Holocaust Memorial, erected in 1996 on the site of a synagogue that was destroyed in 1969. The black wall, etched with a silhouette of the synagogue, is inscribed with the Hebrew and Slovakian words for “remember”: “Zachor” and “Pamätaj.”
“For some of you, this Memorial of the Shoah is the only place where you can honor the memory of your loved ones. I join with you in this,” he said. “Memory cannot and must not give way to forgetfulness, for there will be no lasting dawn of fraternity unless we have first shared and dispelled the darkness of the night.”
“This Square,” he continued, “is also a place where the light of hope shines forth. Each year you come here during Hanukkah to light the first lamp on the menorah. Darkness is dispelled by the message that destruction and death do not have the last word, but rather renewal and life.”
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The pope recalled a 2017 meeting in Rome between members of the Jewish and Christian communities of Slovakia, after which a commission for dialogue with the Catholic Church was established.
Thanking them for their dialogue with Christians, he said: “It is good to share and make known the things that unite us. And it is good to advance, in truth and honesty, along the fraternal path of a purification of memory, to heal past wounds and to remember the good received and offered.”
“Our world needs open doors. They are signs of blessing for humanity,” he added.
“Here in this land of Slovakia, a land of encounter between east and west, north and south, may the family of the children of Israel continue to foster this vocation, the summons to be a sign of blessing for all the families of the earth. The blessing of the Most High is poured out upon us, whenever he sees a family of brothers and sisters who respect and love each other and work together.”
“May the Almighty bless you, so that, amid all the discord that defiles our world, you may always be, together, witnesses of peace. Shalom!” he concluded.
Pope Francis met with the Jewish community during the first full day of a four-day visit to Slovakia, which will take him also to the cities of Prešov, Košice, and Šaštín before returning to Rome on Sept. 15.