Sunday, June 28, 2009

Pope Benedict at Yad Vashem

Like most of you, I’m sure, I’ve been watching and reading the news coverage of the Pope’s visit to Israel with mixed feelings, but also with a bit of genuine confusion. Indeed, the reports I’ve looked at have themselves been oddly at odds with other journalists’ reports of those same events.

Look at the incident regarding Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, the chief Islamic judge of the Palestinian Authority, for example. The pope was present at the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute in Jerusalem when the sheikh, uninvited to the podium, seized the moment anyway to launch into a long, violent diatribe in which he used the most inflammatory and hostile language imaginable to damn the government and people of Israel. What happened next depends on whose newspaper you read: in the Arab press, the Pope is reported as having waited politely for the end of the meeting, then as having shaken the man’s hand. In the Israeli newspapers, however, I read that the Pope stood up, presumably indignantly, and walked out before the scheduled end of the meeting. And then there are sources that embrace both versions, thus making no sense at all by insisting that he shook the man’s hand as he was walking out. (Left undisclosed is how the Pope can be expected to have known what was going on in the first place—the sheikh’s speech was in Arabic, there was no translator, and the man wasn’t scheduled to speak. ) You see what I mean about confusing accounts!

And then there was the whole brouhaha regarding Yad Vashem, which is actually what I want to write about today. I’ve expressed myself in this space on several occasions about the controversy concerning the behavior of the Catholic Church during the years of the Shoah and I’ve recommended to you Daniel Goldhagen’s extraordinary book, A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Church in the Holocaust and its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair, published by Vintage Books in 2003, on several occasions. (Second-hand copies are available for less than a dollar through and the other on-line purveyors of used books.) Nor are we done with this issue: the controversy concerning Pope Pius has become only more heated in the last several years as the possibility of his eventual canonization as a saint has been raised. (If you want to sense the passion on both sides of the issue, it would be profitable to read both John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope , published by Penguin-Putnam in 1999, and also, for a diametrically opposing analysis of the same data, Rabbi David Dalin’s The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, published by Regnery Publishing in 2005. That’s the same David Dalin, incidentally, who spoke at Shelter Rock several times over the last few years, mostly recently in 2006.)

So what happened in Jerusalem the other day? Again, it depends who you are reading. Either the Pope, incensed that a display at Yad Vashem refers (I think quite vaguely) to Pope Pius having maintained “a neutral position” regarding the annihilation of European Jewry, agreed only to visit the Hall of Remembrance, but not actually to enter the exhibition space. Or else he was not making any statement, considered a visit to Yad Vashem to be a visit to Yad Vashem, and set to making his remarks in as dignified and personally engaged manner as possible in the space assigned to him. Hovering over the whole affair is the Pope’s own story: he was inducted at age fourteen into the Hitler Youth (as was obligatory for all German boys after December, 1939), then drafted at age sixteen into the Anti-Aircraft Corps, then transferred into the infantry unit from which he deserted in 1945. (An interesting detail that I myself just learned the other day is that the Pope was touched personally by the Nazis’ rage when a teenaged cousin of his, a boy with Down’s syndrome, was one of the more than 70,000 mentally handicapped Germans, including about 5000 children, murdered as part of the Aktion T4 program in effect from 1939 to 1941.) And so, bearing all this baggage (as though being the first German pope since the eleventh century weren’t enough), the Pope spoke at Yad Vashem.

The responses were, to say the least, varied. But I have to say at a lot of what I read seemed petty almost to the point of being meanspirited. Rabbi Lau, for example, the former Ashkenazic chief rabbi and himself a survivor, made a big and public deal over the fact that the Pope referred to “millions” of Jewish victims instead of mentioning specifically that six million Jews fell prey to the Nazis’ effort to rid Europe of its Jews. And then he went on to complain that the Pope referred to the dead as having been “killed,” rather than “murdered.” To me, that sounds like ungracious carping…and so I went to the Yad Vashem site and listened to the speech myself. (The URL for the Yad Vashem site is, but it’s much easier to hear and understand the speech in its version on the YouTube site, where you can find it in its entirety—it’s only about six minutes long—at .) I have to say that I heard nothing but moving rhetoric delivered solemnly and with what certainly sounded to me like great feeling. Despite having heard a thousand similar speeches over the year in different venues, I was transfixed by the thought of this old man’s journey in life from Nazi Bavaria to Jewish Jerusalem, from that moment in 1941 when he was inducted into the Hitler Youth to the moment this week that he stood at Yad Vashem and spoke about the victims of his countrymen’s genocidal fury simply and with what I certainly took for genuine emotion.

Why I was so moved is not that hard to say. The Pope was in the Hall of Remembrance, where an eternal flame burns before a crypt containing the ashes of some of the Nazis’ victims. He stoked the flame slightly, then lay a wreath of flowers before the crypt. And then he addressed the assembled. Playing on the fact that the “shem” part of Yad Vashem is the Hebrew word for “name,” he began his remarks with these words: "I have come", he said, "to stand in silence before this monument, erected to honor the memory of the millions of Jews killed in the horrific tragedy of the Shoah. They lost their lives, but they will never lose their names: these are indelibly etched in the hearts of their loved ones, their surviving fellow prisoners, and all those determined never to allow such an atrocity to disgrace mankind again. Most of all, their names are forever fixed in the memory of Almighty God. One can rob a neighbor of possessions, opportunity or freedom", he added. "One can weave an insidious web of lies to convince others that certain groups are undeserving of respect. Yet, try as one might, one can never take away the name of a fellow human being.”

Then, moving forward with the theme of the obligation to memorialize the victims’ names, the Pope said this: "The names enshrined in this hallowed monument will forever hold a sacred place among the countless descendants of Abraham. Like his, their faith was tested. Like Jacob, they were immersed in the struggle to discern the designs of the Almighty. May the names of these victims never perish! May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten! And may all people of goodwill remain vigilant in rooting out from the heart of man anything that could lead to tragedies such as this…Gazing upon the faces reflected in the pool that lies in stillness within this memorial, one cannot help but recall how each of them bears a name. ... Who could have imagined that they would be condemned to such a deplorable fate! As we stand here in silence, their cry still echoes in our hearts. It is a cry raised against every act of injustice and violence. It is a perpetual reproach against the spilling of innocent blood. It is the cry of Abel rising from the earth to the Almighty.”

I’m not sure why I was so moved by the Pope’s remarks, but I was. Rabbi Lau’s comments seemed petty to me, but the remarks of Reuven Rivlin, speaker of the Knesset, struck me as almost incomprehensible. He complained that the Pope didn’t apologize for the Shoah, didn’t request forgiveness for his nation’s sins (or for his church’s), didn’t engage in what he called “honest communion, personal and determined, regarding the Shoah.” Even Avner Shalev, the chairman of Yad Vashem itself, regretted the “restraint” he heard in the Pope’s remarks. I listened to the same speech and you all should too. (The pontiff’s English is strongly accented, but he speaks clearly and you’ll find it very easy to understand him.) What I heard was a man speaking directly from the heart about events that, almost by definition, defy translation into human language. When the man referred, as quoted above, to the cry of the victims reverberating in our hearts as a cry raised against every act of injustice and violence, but also as a perpetual reproach against the victimization of the innocent, I personally thought he got it perfectly right. I don’t see any percentage in holding a man who was all of sixteen years old when the war ended personally responsible for the Shoah, much less for the actions or inertia of the wartime pope, nor do I expect such a person to apologize for the sins of others. (I’m not even sure it is possible to apologize for others’ sins.) Nor do I personally think there is anything insulting about speaking with restraint about indescribable, almost inexpressible, matters. What I heard in the Pope’s comments was a dignified response to a tragedy not of the man’s own making and a personal pledge to serve the memory of the martyrs by memorializing their names in perpetuity. Why anyone would take issue with comments of that ilk, I really can’t imagine. (May 15, 2009)

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