Few question Pope Benedict XVI's good will, nor the eloquence of his prose. But for the second time in three years, the Pope has delivered a highly anticipated discourse on the Holocaust that was moving but, by its silence on specific subjects, missed an opportunity of historic proportions.
Welcomed at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial early Monday evening, Benedict spoke powerfully of the victims, and called on humanity never to forget the attempt to exterminate the Jews as a way "to ensure that hatred will never reign in the hearts of men again." But, in a highly unusual criticism of an honored guest's remarks, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, chairman of the Yad Vashem council, told Israeli television that though the speech was moving, "Something was missing. There was no mention of the Germans or the Nazis who participated in the butchery, nor a word of regret." Unlike John Paul II's speech here in 2000, Benedict also chose not to speak specifically of Christianity's role in anti-Semitism over the centuries. (See pictures of the Pope on his visit to the Holy Land.)
Avner Shalev, the chairman of the memorial, also seemed pained by the Pope's decision not to cite the origins of the Holocaust, neither its roots in anti-Semitism nor the place where it was launched. "This is a place where we speak of the importance of memory," Shalev told reporters after the ceremony. "To not specifically mention the perpetrators, the murderers... He missed that point." Shalev also wondered why the German-born Pope, who was an unwilling conscript into the Hitler Youth, chose to offer no reflections of his personal experience. (The Pope had condemned anti-Semitism during his remarks at Ben Gurion airport earlier Monday, when he'd arrived from Jordan as part of his eight-day Middle East trip.) (See historic pictures from Kristallnacht.)
Several Holocaust survivors present said it was not their place to pick apart the Pope's remarks, but there was not the resounding gratitude that John Paul II received upon his visit in 2000. "It was OK. I'm satisfied," said Ed Mosberg, a Krakow native and New Jersey resident whose parents and two sisters were killed by the Nazis. "It's important that he came."
This was the second time Benedict, 82, has gotten decidedly mixed reviews on his handling of a Holocaust-related visit. He had visited the Auschwitz concentration camp in 2006 and poignantly asked, "Where was God?" when the Nazis carried out Hitler's Final Solution. But the same speech hit several sour notes in the ears of Jewish leaders, as the Pope failed to cite anti-Semitism as a cause of the genocide. Instead, he wondered if Christianity wasn't ultimately Hitler's final target, and summarily disposed of the complicated moral question of German society's "collective responsibility" by blaming the systematic extermination of millions of Jews and other innocents on the deeds of a "ring of criminals." The Bavarian native concluded: "Our people was used and abused as an instrument of [the Nazis] thirst for destruction and power." (Read a story about the Pope's prayer at Auschwitz.)
Sergio Minerbi, a former Israeli ambassador and scholar on Israeli-Vactian affairs, was given shelter from the Nazis in an Italian Catholic Boys School during the war. But Minerbi, who has met Benedict several times when he was still a cardinal, says the Pope wants to "Christianize the Holocaust." Minerbi concludes: "There's a long way to go before the Vatican and the Jews establish friendly relations." (See pictures of Hitler's rise to power.)
The humble and quiet presence of the aging pontiff at Yad Vashem was itself an attempt to improve those relations. The ties had frayed earlier this year after Benedict lifted the excommunication of four ultra-traditionalist Bishops, including one who denies the widely accepted facts about what happened in Nazi Germany. The Pope, who has since said that the Bishop has no standing in the Church so long as he doesn't change his stance on the events of World War II, denounced any who deny the events of the Holocaust.
Taken on face value, however, Benedict's brief remarks were eloquent, a kind of prayerful meditation about how the names of those murdered renders them nonetheless inextinguishable from the eternal book of human history. "They lost their lives but they will never lose their names," the Pope said, speaking in his softly accented English. "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." The Pope clearly grasps the scope and horror of the Holocaust. He added this chilling contemplation on the names of the children who died in the Holocaust: "I can only imagine the joyful expectation of their parents as they anxiously awaited the birth of their children. What name shall we give this child? What is to become of him or her? Who could have imagined that they would be condemned to such a deplorable fate."
Vatican observers make a point to not constantly compare Benedict to his predecessor: two different men facing two different challenges. Still, their biographies are linked in a way that gave the German Pope a unique chance to complete the legacy of his Polish predecessor in helping to reconcile the 20th century Christian Europe that failed to save its Jews from near annihilation. Instead, eloquent and heartfelt as he may have been, Benedict came to Israel's Holocaust memorial and spoke neither as a man of his times nor his place. With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem