A meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican was ‘an incredible moment’ for these Jewish community leaders from Toronto

Michael Levitt, president of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Canada organization, met with Pope Francis on Wednesday June 22, 2022 at the Vatican. The visit was part of a larger delegation from the Holocaust education organization to discuss antisemitism and the growing dangers of unchecked populism. (Vatican Media photo)

Michael Levitt is still in awe of his half-hour meeting with Pope Francis inside the Vatican on June 22, while Fred Waks calls his encounter with the head of the Catholic Church “pretty breathtaking.”

The pair were part of a larger delegation of 30 people from the Simon Wiesenthal Center organization who travelled to Rome for a private audience with the 85-year-old Pope to discuss their concerns about rising antisemitism around the world.

“I was so fortunate to be there and be able to interact and provide an expression of the feelings I believe that so many in our Jewish community have, about what we’re seeing taking place around us,” Levitt told The CJN Daily.

The centrepiece of the meeting was a presentation to the Pope of a copy of a 1919 letter by Adolf Hitler which scholars consider the Nazi leader’s earliest outline of how he was going to get rid of the world’s Jews.

Hitler’s letter

The original four-page typed document, signed by Hitler, was written when the future Nazi leader was still an ordinary German soldier, decades before the Holocaust. The letter is on permanent display at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. (Officials bought it in 2011 from a private collector for US$150,000.)

According to Levitt, the Pope heard how the letter is connected to contemporary issues of hatred against Jews, evil, and the importance of Holocaust education.

“We see it with the genocidal regime in Iran that talks about annihilating and wiping the Jews off the face of the Earth, and also the State of Israel,” Levitt said, adding that the delegation also referred to Ukraine’s battle with Russia, now into its fourth month.

Pope Francis
Rabbi Marvin Hier (left) chats with Pope Francis on Wednesday June 22, 2022 at the Vatican, as part of a private audience that included members of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Canadian board chairman Fred Waks in third from right, behind the Pope. Waks was able to exchange greetings with the Pope.

Concerns about the Pope’s health

The Pope and Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the SWC, each spoke for about five minutes, according to Levitt. Then individual members of the delegation had their opportunities to shake hands with the Pope and exchange a few private words.

Fred Waks, whose late parents were both Holocaust survivors, found the Pope to be “very engaged and knew what the topic was,” he said, referring to the Pope’s knowledge of antisemitism.

Waks thanked the Pope and wished for God to bless him so the elderly leader could continue to carry out his work on behalf of humanity.

Levitt told the Pope that Canada was eager to receive him, amidst global concerns for his health. The Pope, who now uses a wheelchair, is slated to travel to this country in late July to deliver an apology to Indigenous leaders and survivors of Church-run residential schools.

Then he briefed the Pope on the latest statistics of antisemitic incidents happening in Canada, from swastika flags displayed at protests, to graffiti defacing election campaign signs and Hitler salutes being given by students at public schools.

“We have to be vigilant, and we need allies. We need allies in all communities, so I think this was a very timely meeting,” Levitt said.

“This was not just a meet and greet,” Waks agreed. “This was a mission.”

Meeting the pope
Canadian Fred Waks (right) listens as Pope Francis speaks about antisemitism last Wednesday June 22 at the Vatican. Waks was part of a larger delegation from the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal organization who traveled to Rome to meet the 85-year-old leader of the Catholic Church. (Submitted photo)

The Vatican and the Holocaust

What made the trip even more significant for the two Canadians is that it happened one day before the Vatican Archives released a trove of wartime dossiers onto the internet. These are part of a larger collection which contains letters of desperate appeals from 2,500 European Jews and others asking the Church for help in escaping Nazi persecution.

The Vatican, under then-Pope Pius XII, has long been seen as standing by while the destruction of European Jewry was being carried out. Pope Francis ordered these archives unsealed in 2019, but, until now, they were only available to scholars.

A week earlier, the Pope met with the new chairman of Yad Vashem, Dani Dayan, at the Vatican. The pair exchanged gifts, and at the audience, the Pope once again repeated his commitment to fight antisemitism.

“So there is clearly an attempt, a concerted effort by the Vatican to be engaging with Jewish organizations,” Levitt said.

Levitt and Waks are still processing their experience, which also included having the Pope personally bless some souvenir rosaries and even a handkerchief belonging to a housekeeper who works for Waks’ extended family. The rosaries are for Catholic friends and neighbours here in Toronto.

Both men also received souvenir medals with the papal symbol. Levitt plans to display his medal in his office.

Pope Francis medal
Michael Levitt displays the souvenir medal from his visit to Pope Francis, during an interview with The CJN in Toronto on Monday June 27, 2022. (Ellin Bessner photo)