German-Born Pope Benedict XVI Visits Auschwitz, Asks God How He Could ‘Tolerate’ Holocaust
OSWIECIM, Poland May 28, 2006 (AP)— OSWIECIM, Poland – Pope Benedict XVI visited the Auschwitz concentration camp as “a son of the German people” Sunday and asked God why he remained silent during the “unprecedented mass crimes” of the Holocaust.
Benedict walked along the row of plaques at the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex’s memorial, one in the language of each nationality whose members died there. As he stopped to pray, a light rain stopped and a brilliant rainbow appeared over the camp.
“To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man, is almost impossible and it is particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a pope from Germany,” he said later.
“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? How could you tolerate all this?”
Benedict said that just as his predecessor, John Paul II visited the camp as a Pole in 10979, he came as “a son of the German people.”
“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,” he said, standing near the demolished crematoriums where the Nazis burned the bodies of their victims.
“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.”
Shoah is the Hebrew term for the Holocaust, during which the Nazis killed 6 million Jews.
As many as 1.5 million people, most of them Jews, died at Auschwitz and Birkenau, neighboring camps built by the German occupiers near the Polish town of Oswiecim Auschwitz in German. Others who died there included Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Roma or Gypsies, and political opponents of the Nazis.
Benedict did not refer to collective guilt of the German people but instead focused on the Nazi regime. He said he was “a son of that people over which a ring of criminals rose to power by false promises of future greatness.”
He also did not mention the controversy over the wartime role of Pope Pius XII, who some say did not do all in his power to prevent Jews from being deported to concentration camps. The Vatican rejects that accusation.
Typically, Benedict did not mention his own personal experiences during the war. Raised by his anti-Nazi father, Benedict was enrolled in the Hitler Youth as a teenager against his will and then was drafted into the German army in the last months of the war.
He wrote in his memoirs that he decided to desert in the war’s last days in 1945 and returned to his home in Traunstein in Bavaria, risking summary execution if caught. In the book, he recounted his terror at being briefly stopped by two soldiers.
He was then held for several weeks as a prisoner of war by U.S. forces who occupied his hometown.
Earlier, the white-clad Benedict walked alone under the camp gate containing the notorious words: “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Sets You Free.”
He stopped for a full minute before the Wall of Death, where the Nazis killed thousands of prisoners. He was handed a lighted candle, which he placed before the wall.
At the Wall of Death, a line of 32 elderly camp survivors awaited Benedict, most of them Catholic. He moved slowly down the line, stopping to talk with each, taking one woman’s face in his hands and kissing one of the men on both cheeks.
Benedict then visited the dark cell in the basement of one of the buildings, the place where St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan friar, was executed after voluntarily taking the place of a condemned prisoner with a large family in 1941. Kolbe was canonized by John Paul II in 1982.
Benedict stopped to pray again in the cell, standing before a candle placed there by John Paul during his 1979 visit.
The visit is heavy with significance for Roman Catholic-Jewish relations, a favorite theme for Benedict and John Paul.
This was the third time Benedict has visited Auschwitz and the neighboring camp at Birkenau. The first was in 1979, when he accompanied John Paul, and in 1980, when he came with a group of German bishops while he was archbishop of Munich.
Benedict’s stop at Auschwitz his last before he left for Rome was a somber close to a four-day trip that was otherwise upbeat, with some 900,000 people turning out for his Sunday mass in a meadow in Krakow, the city where John Paul II once served as archbishop.
Earlier, he urged 900,000 singing, clapping Poles gathered in a rain-soaked field to share their faith with other countries, saying it was the best way to honor their beloved John Paul.
The enormous, exuberant crowd chanted “Benedetto! Benedetto!” and sang “Sto Lat,” or “A Hundred Years,” wishing him a long life.
“I ask you, finally, to share with the other peoples of Europe and the world the treasure of your faith, not least as a way of honoring the memory of your countryman, who, as the successor of St. Peter, did this with extraordinary power and effectiveness,” Benedict said as he concluded his homily during the Mass in the Blonia meadow.
“I ask you to stand firm in your faith! Stand firm in your hope! Stand firm in your love! Amen!” he concluded, speaking in Polish on the last day of his trip.
Predominantly Roman Catholic Poland joined the European Union only two years ago, 15 years after the collapse of communist rule.
“He told us that we should remain ourselves, that we should stay as we were before, attached to our traditions and Christian values,” said Jacek Radon, 37, a Krakow businessman. “We should carry into the European Union our attachment to faith and to Christ.”
A shadow was cast over the papal visit by Saturday’s attack on Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, who was to say Kaddish, or the Jewish prayer for the dead, during the ceremony led by the pope.
Schudrich told The Associated Press he was attacked in central Warsaw after confronting a man who shouted at him, “Poland for Poles!” The rabbi said the unidentified man punched him in the chest and sprayed him with what appeared to be pepper spray. He was not injured.
Police said they were treating the incident as a possible anti-Semitic attack.
Schudrich, said the most important part of Benedict’s message “was his physical presence at Auschwitz” but that some Jews wished he had gone further by directly addressing anti-Semitism.
“It was a very powerful statement and the words that we heard were powerful, but I’m sure some felt a glaring omission … on the question of anti-Semitism. Jews are very sensitive to that and we are used to hearing the words of John Paul II.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Los Angeles, California-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, told The Associated Press that Benedict’s presence at the camp and his remarks were firm reminders that Holocaust deniers were not speaking the truth.
“He wore the uniform of the Hitler Youth. 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,” he said.
Benedict, 79, has reached out to Poles by delivering parts of his speeches and homilies in Polish and by retracing beloved native son John Paul II’s steps. He visited John Paul’s birthplace, Wadowice, and Sunday’s Mass was held on the same spot where John Paul also drew large crowds on his return trips to Krakow.
Benedict has been applauded during his visit to Poland for encouraging prayers for John Paul’s canonization as a saint and for saying he hopes it will happen “in the near future.”