ROME (Sep. 27)
Pope John Paul II told a group of Polish pilgrims Wednesday that the Nazis committed the Holocaust on Polish soil to debase it, but instead sanctified the land with the blood of innocent victims.
His remarks, coming during the Jewish High Holidays, puzzled some observers but were interpreted by others as deeply sympathetic toward the Jews.
The pontiff addressed pilgrims of various nationalities during his weekly general audience. He confined his references to the Holocaust to the visitors from his native Poland.
The pope did not mention the words “Jew” or “Jewish” in his discourse. But his reference to “the people of the patriarchs, of Moses and of the prophets,” which “was struck by the terrible death of millions of its sons and daughters” left no doubt of whom he was speaking.
One veteran Catholic journalist said he was puzzled by the pope’s remarks and thought they were “certain to cause reaction.”
But others suggested the pontiff meant to make a conciliatory gesture to Jews in the aftermath of the Auschwitz convent dispute, which severely strained Catholic-Jewish relations for years.
The presence of a Carmelite convent on the grounds of Auschwitz, which more than any other former death camp epitomizes the Holocaust, agitated Jews the world over. While the convent is still on the Polish site, construction has begun on an interfaith center nearby where the Carmelite nuns will eventually be relocated.
SPEAKS OF GHETTOS AND GAS CHAMBERS
The pope did not mention Auschwitz. But he appeared to some to be affirming the Jewish view of Auschwitz as a charnel house sanctified by the blood of Jewish victims.
Apparently referring to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews, the pope said: “First they marked them with a particular sign. Then they were pushed into ghettos, into isolated quarters. They were taken to the gas chambers and killed only because they were the children of this people.
“The assassins did all this on our land, perhaps to cover it in infamy,” the pope said referring to Poland. He added: But you cannot cover a land with infamy by killing innocent victims. Such deaths have made the land a holy relic.”
He ended his remarks by saying, “The (Jewish) people, which lived with us during many generations, remained with us after this terrible death of its sons and daughters. Together we await the day of judgment and resurrection.”
In New York, officials of two Jewish organizations welcomed the pope’s recognition of the uniqueness of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust.
“I think this is very positive, coming at a time when there is an upsurge of anti-Semitism in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.
But Rudin said he would prefer to wait to see a full translation of the pope’s remarks before commenting on his mention of the sanctity of Polish soil.