Sir Sigmund Sternberg personified some of the greatest transformations that have taken place in and for the Jewish world in our times.
Not least of these was and is the revolution in Christian and particularly Catholic attitudes and teaching towards Jews and Judaism; and he understood that this did not emerge out of a vacuum. Not only was it a result of the tragedy of the Shoah , it was also the result of active Jewish engagement with the Church.
Many Jews have little or no appreciation of the enormity of this transformation both historically and contemporaneously. He lamented this and often said that had the Vatican document Nostra Aetate been issued twenty five years earlier, Jewish history might have been so radically different. He saw it as a Jewish moral obligation to engage the Church in combatting anti-Semitism and saw Pope John Paul II’s statement that antisemitism is a sin against man and God as almost a personal victory.
In many ways the episode concerning the Carmelite convent in Auschwitz typified his qualities. Taking advantage of the prestige he already enjoyed in the Catholic church, he met with Cardinal Glemp the primate of Poland and spoke to him in his own sincere and unassuming inimitable manner . As a result as the prelate himself admitted , Sir Sigmund succeeded in transforming Glemp’s view of the Jewish protest as interfering foreign meddling, into an appreciation of Jewish pain and distress. Eventually , with the support of Pope John Paul II , the Polish church arranged for the convent to be relocated and established a reconciliation centre nearby.
Nowhere was out of bounds for Siggy’s irrepressible determination and this was ultimately appreciated by his interlocutors. The recognition of the Vatican of his contribution to Jewish-Catholic reconciliation led to his decoration as the first Jewish Papal knight, an honour which some half a dozen Jews have received since.
However he paved the way and one may paraphrase or sages in Pirkei Avot and say of him that in places where there often were no men, he strove to be a man – a true mensch.
Despite the impression one gets from some of the terrible sensational and violent aspects of religion that we see currently and which does indeed pose a threat to society; there has never been an era in the history of humankind where there has been as much interfaith collaboration and cooperation as today. For the Jewish community, it was Sir Sigmund Sternberg and his colleagues of the generation after Word War II and the Shoah who trailblazed that path that many like myself are privileged to follow along today in a new era in interfaith understanding and cooperation.