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Pope Leaves Austria Behind, but Anger and Hurt Continue

June 29, 1988
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Pope John Paul II concluded his five-day visit to Austria Monday, leaving behind a turbulent relationship with Jews in that country and around the world.

The swelling Jewish anger and hurt, however, go far beyond resentment over the papal meetings with President Kurt Waldheim, whose Nazi past the pontiff seems disinclined to acknowledge.

It is rooted in John Paul’s apparent insensitivity to the uniqueness of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust, his reluctance to mention it specifically even when referring to the horrors of the Nazi era and his reference to Austrians as Nazi victims rather than as the enthusiastic collaborators they historically were.

Even when the pope was made aware of Jewish reactions and sought to redeem himself, his words had a negative impact.

Jewish feelings toward Pope John Paul may have been summed up most accurately by Elie Wiesel, author, human rights activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

Writing in the New York Post Tuesday, Wiesel accused the pope of wanting to “de-Judaize the Holocaust” with his “strange and offensive behavior whenever he is confronted by the cruelest event in recorded history.”

The pontiff’s failure to mention that Jews had died at Mauthausen, after he had repeatedly failed to mention Jewish victims during two visits to Auschwitz and a visit to Majdanek, left Wiesel with one conclusion.

“It is now clear: This pope has a problem with him. His understanding for living Jews is as limited as his compassion for dead Jews,” wrote Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor.

Wiesel wrote that at his first visit to Auschwitz, the pope celebrated a general Mass to those who died there.

“Would not common decency and respect for the dead have dictated that he invite a rabbi and nine other Jews to recite Kaddish for the Jewish victims, even as he said Christian prayers for the others? Did he (subconsciously) wish to convert the Jewish dead posthumously?”

Wiesel accused John Paul of wanting people to believe Christians suffered as much as Jews in Hitler’s concentration camps.

“Was this yet another attempt to whitewash the church of its heavy responsibility for the European anti-Semitism that led to mass murder?” Wiesel wrote.

“When he finally spoke of Jewish (and Christian) suffering he described it as a ‘gift to the world.’ A gift? Whose gift? God’s? The Jewish people’s?

“We Jews have never considered the death of anyone a gift to anyone. The murder of one million Jewish children was a moral scandal, a catastrophe of universal dimensions, not a gift,” the Nobel laureate wrote.


The pope met Friday with six Austrian Jewish community leaders, including Paul Grosz, president of the Federal Association of Jewish Communities, and Rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg, chief rabbi of Vienna.

Although both sides described the atmosphere as cordial and friendly, they expressed divergent views.

The pope, referring to the Nazi campaign of extermination against the Jews, told the group that “it would be unjust and untruthful to put the blame on Christianity for these unspeakable crimes.

“Although the extermination was directed more openly against the Jews, it was also against the faith of those who honor the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth as the savior of the world,” he said.

After the pope conducted Mass late Friday at Mauthausen and failed to mention that Jews were the primary victims, Eisenberg remarked, “The only Jew he mentions who suffered is Jesus Christ, and he did not suffer at Mauthausen.”

In New York, Rabbi Jerome Davidson, chairman of the Union of American Hebrew Congregation’s Interreligious Committee, and Annette Daum, its director, issued a statement saying: “It is deeply troubling that Pope John Paul II, at a prayer meeting during his visit to Austria, should have described the suffering of the victims of Nazism as ‘a gift to the world.'”

On Sunday, the last day of his visit, the pope did raise the matter of Austrian complicity with Nazi Germany.

“No one can undo what has already been done,” the pontiff said in an address at a Catholic youth center in Salzburg.

But, the pope added, “Do not simply sweep the waste of your failures, your guilt, your deeds committed in vain, under the carpet. They will only contaminate the spiritual climate or make us look for a scapegoat for our own mistakes.”

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