Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Auschwitz last Sunday triggered mixed reaction from the Jewish community — praise for adding the stop to his schedule and criticism for failing to even mention the anti-Semitism that laid the foundation for the mass killing of Jews there, hatred that continues throughout Europe today.
“Standing at the crematoria, the world’s largest Jewish cemetery, the Pope uttered not one word about anti-Semitism; not one explicit acknowledgement of Jewish lives vanquished simply because they were Jews,” said Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League. “He chose rather to single out Father Maximillian Kolbe, who edited an anti-Semitic Catholic publication, and Edith Stein, a Jew who converted to Catholicism, both of whom died at Auschwitz.
But just three days later, at his weekly general audience in Vatican City Wednesday, the 79-year-old pope appeared to go out of his way to mollify critics who faulted him for not condemning anti-Semitism while at Auschwitz.
“In the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, as in other similar ones, Hitler ordered the extermination of more than six million Jews,” he told tens of thousands of people in St Peter’s Square. “Today’s humanity must not forget Auschwitz and the other ‘factories of death’ where the Nazi regime tried to eliminate God in order to take his place,” he said. “Humanity must not give in to the temptation of racial hatred, which is at the origin of the worst forms of anti-Semitism.”
Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee and who attended the ceremonies in Poland, said that despite his “disappointments” in the Pope’s performance at Auschwitz, “I think he should be commended” for what he accomplished.
“It may not have advanced things in a way people hoped, but it did not pull back from the progress made up until now,” he said.
And Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, told the Associated Press that Benedict’s presence at the camp and his remarks belie the claims of those who deny the Holocaust ever occurred.
“He wore the uniform of the Hitler Youth,” Rabbi Hier said. “For him to now go there as the pope and acknowledge the horrors the Holocaust visited on the Jewish people and all mankind is important.”
The pope’s visit was viewed by many as a source of unity.
When meeting former inmate Henrik Mandelbaum, who was forced to burn the bodies of his fellow Jews in the Birkenau crematoria, the normally reserved Benedict kissed him on both cheeks; the latter blushed with gratitude.
Poland’s chief rabbi, U.S.-born Michael Schudrich — who had been punched and sprayed with pepper spray in an anti-Semitic attack in Warsaw days earlier that Poland’s president expressed regret for — not only said Kaddish in the presence of the pope and the country’s top elected leaders, but also recalled those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the gas chambers.
The pope prayed with clasped hands as Simcha Keller, director of the Jewish community of Lodz, sang El Maleh Rachamim, a solemn prayer said to honor close relatives who have died.
He also asked some difficult questions: “In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can be only a dread silence, a silence which itself is a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent?”
Forced in his native Germany to join the Hitler Youth as a teen, Benedict said: “’The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the Earth. By destroying Israel with the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention.”
Rabbi Schudrich and others at the ceremony praised the pope for what they said was an honest and moving expression of love for all people, including Jews.
But Rabbi Schudrich noted that the pope “stopped short of decrying anti-Semitism, and although his visit was a wonderful gesture to us all, not mentioning anti-Semitism was a glaring omission.”
The chief rabbi’s sentiments were echoed by a number of Jewish observers, including Auschwitz survivor Kalman Sultanik.
Baker noted that although the pope first stopped at Auschwitz, the ceremony itself was held at Birkenau, the site “where Jews were taken and murdered.”
In 1979, misunderstandings between Poles and Jews ran so deep that even a rabbi’s desire to say the Mourner’s Kaddish reportedly disturbed some Polish politicians. But last Sunday, Baker said, “there was not a battle” for the Jewish memorial prayers to be recited.
“It was an understood part of the ceremony,” he said. “No one had to press to get it included. Church officials reached out to the Jewish community almost as a matter of course.”
Although there were some who criticized the pope also for only making a sign of blessing and not stopping or at least directing that his motorcade slow down when it passed the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial en route to St. John’s Cathedral in Warsaw — at which several thousand people were gathered — Baker said he believes that was simply a mistake “by someone at a lower level who forgot to have the vehicle stop.”
The motorcade had made a detour to swing by the monument, and Baker said he found it “hard to believe they would have arranged this and then intentionally snubbed this group. It think it was a screw-up.”
Both Foxman and Baker were distressed by the pope’s reference to the Nazi regime as simply a “ring of criminals [who] rose to power by false promises of future greatness. …”
Foxman insisted that those attitudes and their treatment of the Jews were “shaped by centuries of Christian anti-Judaism which became political anti-Semitism.” And Baker said he thought “even today German political leaders would be unlikely to speak that way. It separates out the role of the German people as a whole.”
The pope’s visit came at a time when Polish-Jewish relations are soaring. The country has the largest number of and best-attended Jewish festivals in Europe, countless Catholic-Jewish initiatives and massive government financial support for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, expected to open in Warsaw in 2009.
However, the specter of anti-Semitism has not been erased in the country that was home to one of the world’s largest Jewish communities before World War II.
Less than a month ago, an extreme-right Catholic party whose politicians have a long history of anti-Jewish and anti-gay positions joined the coalition government at the request of Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz.
The League of Polish Families is presided over by Roman Giertych, the country’s new minister of education. Giertych is formerly head of the All-Polish Youth, whose members have been photographed giving the Nazi salute, according to media reports. The league has its roots in the National Democratic movement, which advocated violence against Jews in the 1930s and was led by Giertych’s grandfather.
In dozens of interviews, Jews and non-Jews said they worry that Giertych’s rise had empowered the small segment of Polish society that is intolerant and xenophobic.
“There is a price to letting in extreme rightists into the government. It empowers xenophobic, homophobic and anti-Semitic members of society,” Rabbi Schudrich said.