Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Pope Benedict XVI, Auschwitz, and the Nature of Anti-Semitism
For comprehensive coverage of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Poland, I refer you to American Papist's "The Great Poland Post of 2006".
On Sunday, May 28, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI walked in silence under the iron gate bearing the Nazi slogan, "Arbeit Macht Frei," or "Work Makes You Free," and into the concentration camp of Auschwitz:
As church bells rang in the southern town of Oswiecim -- the Polish name for Auschwitz -- a solemn Benedict, his hands clasped in prayer, walked in silence the 200 metres to the execution wall wedged between prisoner blocks 10 and 11, where the Nazis summarily shot thousands of prisoners.(German-born Pope Benedict XVI in Auschwitz, by Denis Barnett. European Jewish Press May 28, 2006.
Afterward, Benedict visited the cell which housed the Polish Catholic martyr Maximilian Kolbe, executed in 1941 after taking the place of a prisoner sentenced to die by starvation, and recognized as a saint by Pope John Paul II in 1982. He also paused for reflection next to the line of 22 plaques at Birkenau's International Monument to the Victims of Fascism, established between former crematoria II and III, where -- in German -- he prayed for peace and reconciliaton.
According to the Deutsche-Welle, Pope Benedict "shattered a taboo in the often-blighted relationship between Christians and Jews by using his native German language" to pray for Jewish-Christian reconciliation:
Throughout his four-day pilgrimage to Poland, a sentimental tribute to his predecessor and mentor John Paul II, Pope Benedict has avoided speaking German, aware that the older generation still regard it as the language of the old oppressor. But, the paper continued, the choice of German in Auschwitz was a deliberate gesture — a recognition that he had come to the camp not just as the Head of the Roman Catholic Church, but as a German and as an individual.
Few places on this earth rival the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp as a testament to "man's inhumanity to man" -- a pervasive symbol of terror, genocide and the incomparable abomination of the Holocaust. According to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Website (auschwitz.org.pl), it is "the site of the greatest mass murder in the history of humanity":
Auschwitz functioned throughout its existence as a concentration camp, and over time became the largest such Nazi camp. In the first period of the existence of the camp, it was primarily Poles who were sent here by the German occupation authorities [...] political, civic, and spiritual leaders, members of the intelligentsia, cultural and scientific figures, and [members of the resistance movement]. Over time, the Nazis also began to send groups of prisoners from other occupied countries to Auschwitz. Beginning in 1942, Jews whom the SS physicians classified as fit for labor were also registered in the camp.
This was the third time Pope Benedict had visited Auschwitz and the neighboring camp at Birkenau -- on June 7, 1979, Benedict, then archbishop of Munich-Freising, was among those bishops who accompanied Pope John Paul II on his visit. He returned a year later, "with a delegation of German bishops, appalled by its evil, yet grateful for the fact that above its dark clouds the star of reconciliation had emerged."
Pope Benedict's Birkenau Address
A translation of Pope Benedict XVI's address at the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp is provided by Zenit News Service. It is, as the rest of Benedict's addresses, worth reading in full -- particularly before the selective, sound-byte presentations of the media.
Just as his predecessor came as a son of the Polish people, said Benedict, "I come here today as a son of the German people. For this very reason, I can and must echo his words: I could not fail to come here.":
I had to come. It is a duty before the truth and the just due of all who suffered here, a duty before God, for me to come here as the successor of Pope John Paul II and as a son of the German people -- a son of that people over which a ring of criminals rose to power by false promises of future greatness and the recovery of the nation's honor, prominence and prosperity, but also through terror and intimidation, with the result that our people was used and abused as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power.A German pope addressing the horrors of National Socialism and the Holocaust is a ripe subject for controversy and misunderstanding, so it is no small wonder that not all in Benedict's worldwide audience were satisfied by his words.
The New York Times' Ian Fisher (A German Pope Confronts a Nazi Past May 29, 2006) criticized Benedict for his failure "[to] beg pardon for the sins of Germans or of the Roman Catholic church during World War II," and for "[laying] the blame squarely on the Nazi regime, avoiding the painful but now common acknowledgment among many Germans that ordinary citizens also shared responsibility."
Fisher's sentiment is echoed by the German newspaper Der Speigel (German Silence in Auschwitz May 29, 2006), which notes that Benedict's characterization of Germans as recipients of Nazi exploitation "will probably be associated with him for a long time to come."
Writing for LifeSiteNews.com, Peter J. Smith interprets the Pope's portrayal of his people in a different light, more as a recognition of what Germany truly lost in succumbing to the worldly promises of National Socialism:
Although John Paul and Benedict experienced the horror of the Nazi ideology, each experienced it from different perspectives, and at Auschwitz these perspectives are united. John Paul experienced the most violent effects of the atheist ideology forged by Hitler, as a clandestine young seminarian in Krakow, where the omnipresent stench of burning flesh from Auschwitz-Birkenau constantly reminded Poles of the death sentence that the Nazis had ordered for the whole people. However, Benedict, who was conscripted forcibly into the German army, and then deserted as a teenager saw from the inside the forces that carried away his countrymen from faith in God to a faith in man that embraced death and wrecked terrible havoc on the world.The European Jewish Press noted Mixed reactions to Pope's Birkenau speech by Jewish leaders. On the one hand, Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, found the "accent . . . on the absence of God and not on the silence of man and its responsibilities" problematic, as his characterization of the German people as more the victim "and not on the side of the persecutors."
On one other hand, Israeli Ambassador David Peleg praised the Pope's recognition of the distinctiveness of the Holocaust:
"The most important sentence in the speech is that ’the rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel us from the register of peoples.'"And Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich -- whom the EJP notes was the victim of an anti-Semitic attack only the day before he intoned the Kaddish at the ceremony with Benedict at Birkenau -- praised the speech as "a great moment in the process of reconciling" Jews and Christians."
Although he said the pope "could have said things a bit more strongly ... his mere presence here was very important. It was a cry against anti-Semitism."Giuseppe Laras, president of Italy's rabbis, stated on Vatican Radio that "this visit is a warning to humanity and a word of hope and consolation for all those who suffered." (Jewish Leaders Reflect on Pope's Auschwitz Visit, May 29, 2006).
And US Rabbi Benjamin Blech described the Pope's visit as "historic for all Jewish people and for the world":
Asked if the pope should have apologised for crimes committed by Germany’s Nazis, Blech said: "His very presence here is an apology. It speaks volumes."I found the citation of Blech interesting, and perhaps something more than a coincidence: Rabbi Blech happens to be author of If God is Good, Why is the World so Bad?, a popular book on theodicy conceived as a Jewish corrective to the classic work by Rabbi Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The two rabbis in their own way respond to the question the Holy Father posed in his own address: Where was God in those days? Why was he silent? How could he permit this endless slaughter, this triumph of evil? (See Blech on Blech Jewsweek Sept. 25, 2003).
Reading the text of Benedict's address, however, it is hard not to see a more stinging rebuke and condemnation of those who persecute the Jews, or a clearer recognition of what anti-semitism truly is, especially as it was manifested in the horrors of Auschwitz:
Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid. If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone—to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world. By destroying Israel, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.Benedict's words called to my mind the closing thoughts of Fr. Edward Flannery, in his classic study The Anguish of the Jews. In his final chapter, on "The Roots of Anti-Semitism," Fr. Flannery states:
. . . antisemitism is at its deepest root a unified phenomenon and from all angles an anti-religious one. In the pagan racist, it is rooted in a revolt against the acceptance of a transcendental or divine moral order that would limit human freedom,a nd focuses on the Jews as the historical source of moral order. In the Christian, it derives from the same source, but channels the revolt against Christ, the Jewish God who brought the Jewish concept of God's reign to all nations.According to Fr. Flannery, "the sin of anti-semitism contains many sins, but in the end it is a denial of Christian faith, a failure of Christian hope, and a malady of Christian love."
Contemplating the horrors of Auschwitz and the inscriptions of the victims -- Jew, Polish, German, Russian -- the world is confronted by the diagnosis of our Holy Father, and with his prescription as well:
. . . in the words that Sophocles placed on the lips of Antigone, as she contemplated the horror all around her: My nature is not to join in hate but to join in love."Related Coverage
Pope Benedict and the Jews - Related Links
Any criticism of Pope Benedict's address at Auschwitz-Birkenau can only be examined in relation to the ongoing witness of the life, words and actions of Pope Benedict to date: