Father Erik Ross is a 28 year old Dominican priest who lives in Poznan, Poland. He is American born, studied in the USA and Israel and received a Masters Degree in Poland for Polish language proficiency. He has a good working knowledge of Hebrew and Yiddish and has dedicated his ministry to furthering good relations between Catholics and Jews, a particularly difficult task in a country such as Poland where anti-semitism flourished for 1000 years of Jewish settlement in Poland.
The Dominican Order in the Roman Catholic Church is known as the Order of Preachers (“Ordo Praedicatorum”) and was founded in 1215 by the Spanish priest Dominic of Caleruega in France. On December 22, 1216 it was approved by a Papal bull issued by Pope Honorius III.
Unlike other Catholic religious orders, the Dominican friars were mendicants who took the vow of total poverty. They live their lives according to the ways which they believe that Jesus did, renouncing all personal property and traveling throughout the Catholic world to preach. They take vows to live an ascetic life.
Recently I have been reading several well-written articles by Father Erik Ross which have been published in The Times of Israel. Father Ross is indeed a friend of Israel and has visited the Jewish state on several occasions.
The basic theme of most of his writing concerns itself with the history of Jewish-Christian relations over the centuries. I don’t know if he writes in Polish for Catholic periodicals and if so, how they would be received by the Polish Catholic church, its priests and its parishioners.
The Polish Catholic church is the most conservative of all Catholic churches in the world. And much of the persecution of Polish Jews from medieval to modern times has met with the approval of the Polish clergy.
For centuries, Poles would spit at a Jew who was passing by with the Polish curse “pieskrew zyd”… bloody Jewish dog. Pogroms were more common in Imperial Russia but the Poles were not lacking in their persecution of the Jews who dwelt in the Polish kingdom. Periodically there were benevolent Polish kings who used Jews as tax collectors for the crown. This was tragically the case in the Ukraine which was not Polish Catholic but Ukrainian Orthodox with an intense hatred of the Poles.
If the Polish kings ordered their Jewish tax collectors to demand two gold coins from the Ukrainian clergy, the Jewish messenger would exact payment of three gold coins, keeping one for himself. This intensified Ukrainian hatred of the Jews. They had to pay the tax in order to be allowed to open their churches for baptism, weddings and other religious services. And since they were not able to vent their anger on the Polish kings, it was directed solely upon the Jews.
It led to the greatest massacre of Jews at that time under the leadership of the Ukrainian hetman, Bogdan Chmielnicki,in 1636, who even today is honored as a Ukrainian patriot and national hero. Tens of thousands of Jews fell by the blade of Ukrainian swords and the streets ran red with Jewish blood.
The Poles gave sanctuary to the Jews in a church in Nemirov. The Ukrainians attacked the church and murdered every single Jew. Nemirov is close to my heart. One of my grandfathers was the Rabbi of Nemirov in 1727.
Throughout the centuries when Poland was not independent it was divided among three powers, the Russians, the Prussians and the Austrians, but it was under Austrian rule that much of Jewish life flourished.
In 1918 when the monarchies of those three powers were abolished and the emperors abdicated, Poland gained its independence. Its first president was the beloved war hero, Marshall Josef Pilsudski, who was benevolent to Polish Jews and was respected by them. The world-renowned concert pianist and composer, Ignace Paderewski, became prime-minister and passed several pieces of legislation harmful to the Jews. He was a leading anti-Semite until his death.
Between the two world wars, some Jews flourished in Poland, especially in the fields of literature and medicine. Restrictions on admitting Jews into Polish universities caused thousands of Jews to pursue higher education in Germany and Italy. Our late beloved Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, had to sit in a special section where benches were reserved only for Jews. He received his law degree from Warsaw University.
By 1929 the world was experiencing economic crisis of great magnitude…a worldwide depression. At that time, the head of the Polish Catholic Church, Augustus Cardinal Hlond, urged Poles to boycott Jewish businesses, Jewish doctors and Jewish lawyers. He did not object to destruction of Jewish property but he did forbid personal bodily harm to the Jews. His cry was “Zydzie do Palestyny”… Jews, get out of Poland and go to Palestine.
In 1931, my wife’s Orthodox grandfather had to travel from Warszawa to Dzialoszyce in order to attend his mother’s funeral. At the railroad terminal, a group of drunken Polish men attacked him and cut off his beard. He was unable to continue his travel and some months later he and his wife and children left their native Poland forever and settled in Palestine where he opened one of Tel-Aviv’s first textile factories.
The Holocaust years which saw the annihilation of Poland’s three million Jews is a subject that few Poles like to discuss. But there is an answer to the one significant question: of all the countries in Europe occupied by the Nazis, why were all the death camps located in Poland?
The answer was given by Himmler. He said the Poles will not object if we exterminate the Jews whom they hate. They will not rebel against us. Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Majdanek, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec and others became the graves of millions of murdered Polish Jews.
And after the war in 1945, the few survivors who could struggle to return to Poland in search of their homes and property were murdered in Polish pogroms in Kielce and in Jedwabne. But to the credit of many good Polish Catholics, thousands of Jewish lives were saved. Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has honored more Poles than any other nationality as Righteous Gentiles.
Today people speak of a new Poland and a rebirth of Jewish life and culture, especially at the annual Jewish festival in Krakow attended by many thousands of Polish non-Jews.
Back to Father Erik Ross. He sees his duties as priest and preacher to educate Poles about Jews and to work tirelessly to improving relations between the two peoples. His writings are pro-semitic (philo-semitic) and he is sincere and genuine in his labors of love in God’s Name.
Roses to Ross. May God grant him the strength and wisdom to succeed in his holy efforts of tolerance and of love. I look forward to reading more of his articles in future editions of The Times of Israel.