Some people are motivated by a desire for money; others for adulation and fame. Some people do good when others are watching but turn away if no one is looking. Others, like the righteous gentiles of the Holocaust, have an inner moral compass that directs them to do the right thing even if it is not fashionable.
Close to 200 people, including Holocaust survivors, Jewish educators, community leaders, Catholic clergy, family and friends joined together April 29 to honor two such righteous gentiles, Sister Gemma Del Duca and Sister Mary Noel Kernan, and their lifetime of dedication and devotion to Holocaust education. The festive dinner and fundraiser marked the pair’s formal retirement from the program they started 28 years ago.
The two nuns, with the support of JoAnn Boyle, then president of Seton Hill University, co-founded the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education in 1987, with a local office on the campus of Seton Hill in Greensburg and an Israeli office in Jerusalem. The mission of NCCHE is “to counter anti-Semitism and to foster Catholic-Jewish relations” by providing Holocaust education to students and teachers, especially in Catholic universities. It holds programs and sends participants from across the United States to study at Yad Vashem in Israel, as well as many other programs, conferences, publications, exhibits and activities related to its core mission.
The sisters took this unprecedented step in response to the change in church doctrine mandated by Nostra Aetate, a product of the Second Vatican Council that was, according to the Anti-Defamation League, “a document that … repudiates the centuries-old ‘deicide’ charge against all Jews, stresses the religious bond shared by Jews and Catholics, reaffirms the eternal covenant between God and the People of Israel and dismisses church interest in trying to baptize Jews.”
In addition to the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, there was also the silence of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust.
“We were cognizant of the fact that Christians, and particularly Catholics, had not stood up for what we believe in in allowing the Holocaust to continue,” explained Kernan. “But what can we do [now]? We can make a statement. How? By educating people; the best people to educate would be teachers.”
Del Duca clarified why it is important for Catholics to learn about the Holocaust.
“Many of the countries where the Shoah had its most devastating effect were predominantly Catholic countries,” she pointed out. “Catholics were involved as victims, perpetrators, bystanders and rescuers. So it is very much a part of Catholic history.”
Del Duca was adamant that the center is “absolutely not” trying to proselytize for conversion. She said her role is to “affirm Jews in their Judaism and for Catholics to look at Judaism as our root, and to bless the root.” She also emphasized that she would “take a firm stance against anyone who would try to delegitimize the State of Israel.”
Del Duca has received awards for her work in Holocaust education from Seton Hill, State of Israel Bonds and the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. She is the first non-Israeli to receive the Yad Vashem Award for Excellence in Holocaust Education. The Pittsburgh chapter of the Zionist Organization of America honored her in 2008.
Stuart Pavilack, executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the ZOA, noted his organization’s cooperative relationship with the center.
“Sister Gemma’s dedication to Holocaust education is phenomenal,” he said. “Not only is Holocaust education important, but to give these students the tools to make themselves better individuals, better employees, better citizens.”
Patty Schneider, wife of Harry Schneider, who was a “hidden child” during the war, explained the importance of Holocaust education by stressing that “many people don’t really believe the Holocaust actually happened because of all the [Holocaust deniers] over the years.”
Holocaust survivor Shulamit Bastacky strongly supports the NCCHE. She and Del Duca have been friends for many years.
“I have tremendous admiration for Sister Gemma and Sister Noel and the work that they have done,” said Bastacky. She hopes that the work that they began “will continue for many years. Once the Holocaust survivors are gone, the NCCHE will continue to spread the message of the lessons of the Holocaust.”
NCCHE has actually had a new director since June 2014 — Tim Crain, who previously taught in the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin.
“Quite frankly, we have a terrible track record,” he said of the Catholic Church’s history both during and after the Holocaust. “We [Christians] should have been the greatest protector of our sister faith of Judaism. But not only did we fail to protect Judaism, we also became, at times, one of its greatest persecutors, and that is something that Christianity is still trying to come to grips with in the present days.”
As a professor of Jewish history, Crain noted that “what makes Jewish history so striking and so impressive is that time and time again you have the triumph of the human spirit. That is a tremendous lesson for all of humanity.”
Simone Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.