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Author: Elaine Strauss. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February
16, 2000. All rights reserved.
For Christians & Jews, a Service of Reconciliation
Just over two weeks ago the New York Times brought
to light an atrocity buried for more than 50 years. As Nazis fled
Russian soldiers in East Prussia they rounded up thousands of Jews
from concentration camps and moved them away from the advancing
In bitter cold weather, they marched an estimated 7,000 ill-nourished,
scantily dressed people, mostly women, to their death near Koenigsberg
(now Kaliningrad). Some of them were forced into the ice-covered
others were shot at point-blank range in an amber mine. Only 13 were
known to have survived. The explosive force of the story was amplified
by the fact that it was hidden for so long.
Soviet authorities, who took over the region after the Nazi defeat,
covered up the massacre. A little more than a year ago investigative
journalists at the Kaliningrad newspaper Dvornik reported the
Dvornik drew on the efforts of two Christians: Martin Bergau, a
and Gunter Nitsch, an American. Bergau had witnessed some of the
Nitsch heard about them from his grandfather, who was at the scene.
Bergau’s and Nitsch’s advocacy for the Jewish victims of Christian
atrocities led to the dedication of a monument reported in the New
York Times. Here was an effort to repent an evil by removing its
Pope John Paul II, for some years now, has advocated a similar
and to that end has pushed for increased interreligious dialogue and
reconciliation. In a 1995 letter called "Tertio Millenio
("The Coming of the Third Millennium") the Pope asked for
an examination of the church’s conscience and for the repentance,
not only of evils perpetrated in the church’s name, but also of evils
tolerated because of the indifference of the church. The Pope
the Jubilee year 2000 as particularly significant for the desired
re-examination. The tradition of a Jubilee dates back to 1300 and
Pope Boniface VIII. It originated with a Mosaic law requiring that
slaves be freed and debts forgiven. Jubilee years now take place every
Taking their lead from Pope John Paul, Catholic Frederick Olessi,
a poet with extraordinary organizing skills, and Jew Leon Klenicki,
rabbi and liaison to the Vatican for the B’nai B’rith’s
League (ADL), have devised a service of reconciliation for Christians
and Jews. It takes place Sunday, February 20, at 2 p.m. in the
University Chapel. "This service," Olessi and Klenicki say,
"was written for the Christian Millennial year 2000 with the hope
that the spirit of reconciliation between Christians and Jews will
be a hallmark of the coming millennium."
The proceedings are meticulously balanced to include symmetrical parts
for Christians and for Jews. The text was written by Olessi, a
Lawrenceville resident, and New Yorker Klenicki, both of whom will
participate in the service. The music is by Princeton composer Olga
Gorelli, who is Christian, and Arno Safran of Lakeside, who is Jewish.
James Goldsworthy of Westminster Choir College of Rider University
conducts. Adult and child singers and readers, evenly distributed
between Christians and Jews, participate. The event is sponsored by
the Julius and Dorothy Koppelman Holocaust/Genocide Resource Center
of Rider University in conjunction with the Princeton University Dean
of the Chapel and the ADL.
A quick glance backward at 2000 years of
relations reveals a history that does not necessarily imply
Jews were forced to live in ghettos; their communities were destroyed
as crusaders headed to the Middle East in the 11th century; they were
expelled from Spain in 1492; their entrance to universities,
and certain occupations was limited. Finally, after having made great
enough gains in western Europe that many Jews forgot about their
they were wiped out by Hitler and his cohorts.
Creating a service of reconciliation prickles with opportunities for
insensitivity. First of all, should the event be called
or "Jewish-Christian"? As Olessi blandly tells it in an
at his Lawrenceville home, there was no real problem. "The impetus
for putting the word `Christian’ before the word `Jewish’ came from
Pope John Paul II," Olessi says. "Without him, this dialog
would not have occurred. He was extraordinary in moving Christianity
into a dialogue with the Jews, whom he calls affectionately `our elder
brothers.’ It could just as easily have been `Jewish’ first, but
first was the way Pope John Paul used it."
Then there is the problem that the arithmetically dramatic year 2000
of the Gregorian calendar, based on the birth of Jesus, corresponds
to part of the years 5760 and 5761 in the Jewish calendar, which lack
the drama of a big round number. Klenicki downplays the calendar issue
in a publication called "A New Millennium: From Dialogue to
and stresses the need for support by both faiths.
"We can celebrate the year 2000 or the year 5760 or 5761,"
Klenicki writes, "but both faith communities need to reflect on
the responsibilities and possibilities of their covenants, as well
as the human possibilities of goodness and evil." Reconciliation,
he says, "is my dream for our year 5760 and the Christian year
2000. This is my dream, ours, Jews and Christians, beyond our time,
for the time of God."
And what about the anti-Semitism embedded in the New Testament,
in the writings of Saint Paul? John Gager, a professor of Religion
at Princeton, is one of a group of scholars whose work points to the
need to re-interpret Paul’s writings, including his gospel and the
Letter of Paul. Although he does not hold the gospels ultimately
for the Holocaust, Gager says in the Proceedings of the Fifth
Center Biennial Conference on Christianity and the Holocaust,
the dehumanization and demonization of Jews at all levels and in every
period of Western history, the Holocaust could not have happened."
While their openness in confronting 2,000 years worth of problems
between Christians and Jews invigorates the ability of Olessi and
Klenicki to collaborate, their mutual admiration lubricates a smooth
working relationship. "When I met Leon I suddenly had a
says Olessi. Klenicki, for his part, once he met Olessi and his late
wife Salud, responded with brotherly teasing. Originally an
Klenicki played off the fact that Argentina was once a colony of Spain
by addressing Salud, who came from Seville, as "La
"We tried to confront Christian anti-Semitism head on," Olessi
says. "For the two of us problem solving is easy; because we get
along so well and can be very open. But how could God have allowed
Auschwitz to happen and how is reconciliation possible? How can we
face each other as brothers and sisters and face history together?
There have been 2,000 years of pain and horror. What is our future?
Leon and I believe we have a future because we have a very deep
"I’m in awe of Leon," Olessi admits about Klenicki. "He’s
a deeply spiritual person." Olessi’s confidence in Klenicki
him to abandon his usual creative procedures. "I’m a writer and
Leon’s an orator," Olessi says. When it came time to compose the
service, he put a tape recorder in front of me. The service was spoken
into the tape recorder. We met about five times. Every time, Leon
came back with changes. That was very different for me as a writer."
"I never change my poetry," Olessi says. "I hear it in
my head and just take it down, as if I was a stenographer. When I
write poetry I use a wooden pencil. The wood was alive. I can’t write
with a pen." Olessi shows me an original manuscript. It consists
of tiny penciled script on an unlined paper pad. "I departed from
this for the service with great terror. But it was liberating in a
Klenicki concurs, in a telephone interview from his home in New York,
about the comfort of the collaboration. "We work wonderfully
he says. "If I don’t know a word Fred finds it. It’s really fun
to work together. And I like poetry very much."
Olessi, now 65, attended Trenton High School and graduated in 1955
from Bucknell University, where he majored in English and political
science. He worked in public affairs for the RCA Corporation in
and Princeton for 15 years before moving into academe. He was director
of development communications at Princeton University, associate
of the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies in Bologna,
and vice president for development at Rider. He also worked for the
Executive Council for Foreign Diplomats and the Pearl Buck Foundation.
"I think of myself primarily as a poet," Olessi says. "Of
course, I had a lot of administrative jobs. I had to live. You don’t
live on poetry."
"I still write a lot of poems and plays," Olessi says. "I
like to write about historical characters in conflict with the times
they live in." He is currently working on a play about the
queen Hatchepsut, the only female pharoah. Twelve productions of
plays have found their way onto the stage, some have been transformed
into operas. Lawrence Township selected Olessi’s "Guvalade:
a Roman in the Mud," with music by Olga Gorelli, to celebrate
its tercentennial (U.S. 1, September 17, 1997). The play drew on the
experiences of Olessi’s enterprising, illiterate Calabrian
who made his fortune in Trenton just after the turn of the century,
and Olessi’s close-knit family.
In Olessi’s home are bookshelves filled with copies of his works,
neatly arranged in matching black loose-leaf note books. Among the
poems is one Olessi wrote because he was so moved by the Pope’s
the man who attempted to assassinate him. Olessi had it transmitted
to the Pope, and would like to think that the Pope read it. He shows
a photograph of his 1983 papal audience where the Pope’s face reflects
the openness and warmth of an appreciative reader of the poem, which
Olga Gorelli set to music.
Olessi calls his poems "very personal. I wrote a
lot for and about my wife. Some of my poems have been set to music
by Arno [Safran] and Olga [Gorelli]," the service of
The year 1999 was a bad one for Olessi. His father died in March;
his wife died in September. Valiantly, Olessi has been carrying on.
He cooked Christmas Eve dinner for his mother, whom he invited to
the house decorated in the manner his wife so loved, with tiny live
trees, poinsettias, and multiple carved wooden nativity scenes.
One of the activities at the top of Olessi’s present priority list
is his work with Rider’s Koppelman Center. Olessi was instrumental
in the center’s creation in 1984, and now serves as its secretary.
The Koppelman Center describes as its mission "to keep the
of the Holocaust and other genocides in the public’s
Its philosophy is that "only by being constantly reminded that
humans are capable of murdering those who are regarded as being
because of their religion, race, or ethnicity, can we hope to stop
these tragedies." The center conducts programs for educators and
students, meetings with Mercer County clergy, programs for the general
community, and a biennial conference for an international array of
Olessi accompanied the Koppelmans, after whom the Rider Center is
named, on a visit to the Vatican in order to present the Pope with
a copy of the resolution for reconciliation between Christians and
Jews adopted by the fifth biennial conference in 1998, where Olessi
and Klenicki worked together. Olessi remembers that when the frail
pope learned that the Koppelmans, who are in their 80s, were there,
he got out of his chair.
Like Klenicki, the Center embraces the reconciliation activities
in the year 2000. Recent letters received from the Center contain
on their letterhead the line "The Third Millennium Program for
Klenicki was born in 1930, less than a year after his family arrived
in Argentina from Poland. The immigration was prompted by there being
no room in the family business for Klenicki’s father, and by the fact
that he was able to get a visa to Argentina. After studying philosophy
and classics at the University of Buenos Aires, Klenicki continued
his education at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
in Cincinnati from 1959 to 1967. After occupying various posts in
Argentina, he returned to the United States in 1973 to become head
of the Jewish-Catholic Relations Department of the ADL, where he now
serves as director of the Department of Interfaith Affairs.
Klenicki is also professor of Jewish Theology at Immaculate Conception
Seminary, Huntington, New York, where he teaches a course on Saint
Paul. He attributes the troubles laid at the feet of the Gospel author
to a bad translation. "Paul was upper class, well-educated,"
says Klenicki. "When talking to non-Jews he used Greek, which
created misunderstandings that require attention. That’s what I do
in my course."
"I feel the sign of a new time in the relationship of Jews and
Christians," says Klenicki. "I teach my tradition. The idea
is to share my spirituality, and living experience of God, with those
of other faiths. In the Jewish tradition, when two or more persons
are talking about religious matters, not in confrontation, but
ideas, the presence of God is a reality." Olessi shares
sentiments. Between them they could present the ideas as either prose
— Elaine Strauss
Personal Dialogue in Word and Song , Rider University, Koppelman
Center, Princeton University Chapel, 609-896-5345. Free. Sunday,
February 20, 2 p.m.
and Genocide Studies workshop, designed for K-12 teachers and
administrators, on Wednesday, March 8 from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Participants will share and learn about current resources and
methodologies available for developing a Holocaust and genocide
curriculum. $30, preregister. Call 908-526-1200 x8235.
24-hour hotline for people with problems. A training course for
volunteers begins Tuesday, March 7, at 9:30 a.m. or 7:30 p.m. Classes
are held at Lawrenceville Presbyterian Church, 2688 Main Street, in
Lawrenceville. Call 609-883-2880.
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