Participate Please: Holocaust Workshop

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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

armies.

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

Baltic;

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

atrocity.

Dvornik drew on the efforts of two Christians: Martin Bergau, a

German;

and Gunter Nitsch, an American. Bergau had witnessed some of the

executions;

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

sheath

of secrecy.

Pope John Paul II, for some years now, has advocated a similar

repentance

and to that end has pushed for increased interreligious dialogue and

reconciliation. In a 1995 letter called "Tertio Millenio

Adveniente"

("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

designated

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

25 years.

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

Anti-Defamation

League (ADL), have devised a service of reconciliation for Christians

and Jews. It takes place Sunday, February 20, at 2 p.m. in the

Princeton

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

lifelong

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

Christian-Jewish

relations reveals a history that does not necessarily imply

reconciliation.

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,

government,

and certain occupations was limited. Finally, after having made great

enough gains in western Europe that many Jews forgot about their

separateness,

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

"Christian-Jewish"

or "Jewish-Christian"? As Olessi blandly tells it in an

interview

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

`Christian’

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

Reconciliation,"

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,

particularly

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

responsible

for the Holocaust, Gager says in the Proceedings of the Fifth

Koppelman

Center Biennial Conference on Christianity and the Holocaust,

"Without

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

brother,"

says Olessi. Klenicki, for his part, once he met Olessi and his late

wife Salud, responded with brotherly teasing. Originally an

Argentinean,

Klenicki played off the fact that Argentina was once a colony of Spain

by addressing Salud, who came from Seville, as "La

Imperialista."

"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

friendship."

"I’m in awe of Leon," Olessi admits about Klenicki. "He’s

a deeply spiritual person." Olessi’s confidence in Klenicki

enabled

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

way."

Klenicki concurs, in a telephone interview from his home in New York,

about the comfort of the collaboration. "We work wonderfully

together,"

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

Washington

and Princeton for 15 years before moving into academe. He was director

of development communications at Princeton University, associate

director

of the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies in Bologna,

Italy,

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

Egyptian

queen Hatchepsut, the only female pharoah. Twelve productions of

Olessi’s

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

grandfather,

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

visiting

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

reconciliation

composers.

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

memories

of the Holocaust and other genocides in the public’s

consciousness."

Its philosophy is that "only by being constantly reminded that

humans are capable of murdering those who are regarded as being

different

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

scholars.

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

initiated

in the year 2000. Recent letters received from the Center contain

on their letterhead the line "The Third Millennium Program for

Christian/Jewish Reconciliation."

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

exchanging

ideas, the presence of God is a reality." Olessi shares

Klenicki’s

sentiments. Between them they could present the ideas as either prose

or poetry.

— Elaine Strauss

A Service of Reconciliation for Christians and Jews: A

Personal Dialogue in Word and Song , Rider University, Koppelman

Holocaust

Center, Princeton University Chapel, 609-896-5345. Free. Sunday,

February 20, 2 p.m.

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Participate Please: Holocaust Workshop

Raritan Valley Community College is holding a Holocaust

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.

Volunteers

CONTACT of Mercer County needs volunteers to staff its

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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