I met Pope Benedict at the infamous death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
It was right after he had assumed his position as head of the Catholic Church and his very first trip as Pope was to Poland. After stopping in Wadowice, birthplace of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict went on to the concentration camp complex 37 miles west of Cracow that epitomized the very worst of Nazi Germany’s genocidal plans for the Jewish people.
It was an historic moment. The newly installed Pope, after all, was a German who at the age of 14 joined the Hitler Youth, as was required of young Germans of the time. What were we to make of his past affiliation? It was a troubling thought that preoccupied Jews throughout the world. Having serendipitously become involved with Pope John Paul II a short while before in an effort to secure the return of precious Jewish items from the Vatican, I was filled with trepidation.
The previous Pope had proved to be more of a friend than we could have possibly imagined. When he made his famous pilgrimage to Jerusalem in March 2000, he wrote a very special note which he inserted into the Western Wall. He acknowledged the special role of Jews as God’s messengers and apologized for generations of bigotry and appalling behavior:
We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and, asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.
Pope John Paul II had been, as the expression goes, “good for the Jews.” What could we expect from Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, the ninth German Pope in history?
The decision to stage the first major event of his papacy at the site of history’s most horrific example of anti-Semitism was unmistakably important, and I was lucky enough to have been present for the occasion.
A solemn Pope Benedict, his hands clasped in prayer, entered the camp gates on foot, 20 meters in front of his cardinals, in a driving rain storm. Church bells rang in the southern town of Oswiecim, the Polish name for Auschwitz. After placing a bowl containing a lighted candle at the camp's execution wall, where the Nazis summarily shot thousands of inmates, he moved along a line of 32 camp survivors waiting to meet him. Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich recited the Kaddish, while musicians played a haunting Jewish lament.
At the site where Nazis exterminated more than a million people, most of them Jews, the Pope began his address by telling the assembled, "In a place like this, words fail. 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 for a Christian, for a pope from Germany.”
"I could not fail to come here. I had to come," he said. "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."
Then an utterly amazing thing happened. Not everyone there understood its biblical significance. But for those who did, it magnificently captured the spiritual meaning of the moment.
Until then we all stood in torrential rain. An aide held an umbrella over the Pope. The fortunate ones among us found some cover. But precisely when the Pope concluded his remarks the rain ceased. A magnificent rainbow appeared in the sky with its arc pointing almost directly to the six memorial markers commemorating the 6 million Jews who had perished.
It was in the time of Noah after the flood and the first cataclysmic time of destruction that God designated the rainbow as an eternal sign to mankind. Its message was God’s promise that a similar devastation would never again be repeated.
What could have been more relevant than a rainbow for those of us who wept at the site of 20th century’s most heinous evil! “Never again” was the divine assurance we perceived from the totally unexpected sign in the sky.
Transference of Power
In the aftermath of the ceremony, hordes of reporters gathered round me to get a rabbinic response to the Pope’s remarks. It soon became apparent though, that they were uninterested in hearing how moved I was by a German Pope’s condemnation of Nazi atrocities. They would have loved to be able to get a headline like, “Jewish leader appalled by Pope’s failure to sufficiently mourn Jewish victims of the Holocaust.”
“Weren’t you disappointed that the Pope didn’t…” was the question raised in variously worded queries goading me to say something negative. But this first encounter with the newly elected Pope was, to my mind, greatly reassuring.
Since that time I have carefully followed Pope Benedict’s relationship with the Jews. He made sure to visit numerous synagogues, has received many delegations from the Jewish community, and pledged repeatedly to uphold the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 teachings about Jews and Judaism that had opened the door to today’s positive relations between the two communities.
Despite some disappointments, some admittedly serious, I concur on the whole with Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger. After the pope announced he would resign, a spokesman quoted Metzger as saying, “During his period [as Pope] there were the best relations ever between the Church and the Chief Rabbinate and we hope this trend will continue. I think he deserves a lot of credit for advancing inter-religious links the world over between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”
I do not know what is in the Pope’s heart of hearts. There are those who refuse to consider the possibility that any Christian, especially its highest spiritual leader, could sincerely harbor any goodwill toward our people. History would indeed justify our hesitation. But Pope John Paul II gave hope that as we come closer to the end of days, ancient wounds might find the opportunity for at least a measure of healing. And I believe it would be a mistake for us not to acknowledge the positive efforts of Pope Benedict during the years of his papacy, even as we fully recognize the many differences between our faiths.
Pope Benedict stunned the world with his announcement of imminent retirement. I believe his final message to the world is as important to us as it is to his followers. Unable to properly fulfill his duties due to physical constraints, he has chosen to transfer his position of power and honor to someone more capable. That is certainly an idea worthy of imitation by many.
As to the selection of a new Pope, it is not within the Jewish purview to involve ourselves in such a process. But we hope the Church finds a papal leadership that will continue its path of atonement for the many centuries of its anti-Semitic history, and will do its part to help heal the world.