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.

His face grave, Benedict stood a few moments in prayer, removing his hat before bowing solemnly and placing a bowl containing a lighted candle before the grim wall.

The pope then greeted a line of 32 camp survivors waiting to meet him. Some grasped his hands warmly, some knelt to kiss his papal ring, many seemed eager to thank him for visiting the camp.

Benedict clasped the hands of the first survivor waiting in line, a woman, wearing the striped scarf that Polish political prisoners wore at the camp.

An elderly Polish man kissed the pope on both cheeks, a gypsy survivor of the camp pressed the pope’s hand to his lips.


Henryk Mandelbaum, 83, wearing the distinctive striped cap of the Sonderkommando — Jewish prisoners who emptied the gas chambers where their fellow Jews perished — kissed the papal ring.

(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.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

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.

From among all the people deported to Auschwitz, approximately 400,000 people were registered and placed in the camp and its sub-camps (200,000 Jews, more than 140,000 Poles, approximately 20,000 Gypsies from various countries, more than 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and more than 10,000 prisoners of other nationalities).

Over 50% of the registered prisoners died as a result of starvation, labor that exceeded their physical capacity, the terror that raged in the camp, executions, the inhuman living conditions, disease and epidemics, punishment, torture, and criminal medical experiments.

Beginning in 1942, Auschwitz began to function in another way. It became the center of the mass destruction of the European Jews. The Nazis marked all the Jews living in Europe for total extermination, regardless of their age, sex, occupation, citizenship, or political views. They died only because they were Jews. After the selections conducted on the railroad platform, or ramp, newly arrived persons classified by the SS physicians as unfit for labor were sent to the gas chambers: the ill, the elderly, pregnant women, children. In most cases, 70-75% of each transport was sent to immediate death. These people were not entered in the camp records; that is, they received no serial numbers and were not registered. This is why it is possible only to estimate the total number of victims.

Historians estimate that among the people sent to Auschwitz there were at least 1,100,000 Jews from all the countries of occupied Europe, over 140,000 Poles (mostly political prisoners), approximately 20,000 Gypsies from several European countries, over 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and over ten thousand prisoners of other nationalities. The majority of the Jewish deportees died in the gas chambers immediately after arrival.

The overall number of victims of Auschwitz in the years 1940-1945 is estimated at between 1,100,000 and 1,500,000 people. The majority of them, and above all the mass transports of Jews who arrived beginning in 1942, died in the gas chambers.

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.

Yes, I could not fail to come here. On June 7, 1979, I came as the archbishop of Munich-Freising, along with many other bishops who accompanied the Pope, listened to his words and joined in his prayer. In 1980, I came back to this dreadful place 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.

This is the same reason why I have come here today: to implore the grace of reconciliation — first of all from God, who alone can open and purify our hearts, from the men and women who suffered here, and finally the grace of reconciliation for all those who, at this hour of our history, are suffering in new ways from the power of hatred and the violence which hatred spawns.

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.'”

“This is a strong sentence to come from the pope in Birkenau. I think it’s important to remember that in the place where he spoke, 95 percent of those who were murdered — more than one million people — were Jews.”

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.”

Neither was Blech disturbed, as some Jews had been, over Benedict’s decision to recite a prayer in German at Birkenau. “The pope’s presence speaks a universal language,” he told Agence France Presse.

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).

* * *

In the Der Speigel article I cited above, Alexander Smoltczyk bemoaned Benedict’s uttering “not a word about anti-semitism” — that he had chosen to speak “about metaphysics” rather than guilt.

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.

In the perspective of this twofold subliminal revolt the data of history — the contrasting forms of antisemitism and its inexplicable permanence — acquire a measure of coherence and consistency. The positive side of the phenomenon, the attaction the Jews and Judaism have wielded as bearers of God’s word among the nations, and the anti-God impulse in the depths of human consciousness and culture are joined in permanent enmity and conflict. Antisemitism is as much a subjective as an objective fact, as much a conflict within a person as among persons. . . .

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’s Auschwitz Prayer, by Jeff Israel. Time May 29, 2006:

    he sight of a German Pope crossing into the death camp beneath the infamously false Nazi sign, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Will Set You Free), is arguably the most striking image of Benedict’s 14-month-old papacy. Walking alone with his hands clasped in front of him, an utterly grim expression fixed across his face, the 79-year-old pontiff entered as both the leader of the billion-strong Roman Catholic Church, and a World War II-generation German citizen.

  • Joseph Bottum (First Things “On The Square” May 29, 2006):

    It’s as though nearly everyone wants to use the Holocaust for something: to advance some modern political purpose or thicken some contemporary moral claim. The temptation is almost overwhelming—and understandably so, for Auschwitz truly is a lesson, and it seems to demand that we apply that lesson, here and now. It seems to demand that we change our lives, here and now.

    In itself, that ought to be a warning. The examples are endless: A few decades ago, the anti-Western Soviets declared that the Nazi death camps demonstrated Communism’s superiority to the bourgeois West; a few years ago, a popular anti-Christian historian wrote a book claiming that the Holocaust proved that organized Christianity must dissolve itself. If the Holocaust merely confirms you in the stands you already have, then you haven’t learned the lesson of the Holocaust.

  • Attempting to slay God was Auschwitz’s greatest evil, pope says , by John Allen Jr. National Catholic Reporter reporting on Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Poland May 25-28.
  • Pope’s Auschwitz visit unifies faiths, even as Poland battles anti-Semitism, by Dinah A. Spritzer. JTA [Global News Service of the Jewish People]. May 29, 2006.
  • Missed Opportunity – Piotr Kadl?ik, chairman of the Union Of the Jewish Communities in Poland, had attempted to arrange for Benedict to bless Poles who received the title “Just Among the Nations” during his visit to the monument for the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising — such was not to be, as the papal motorcade passed quickly by (just long enough for a a sign of blessing. (European Jewish Press Report).
  • Survivor braves Auschwitz return BBC News. May 25, 2006. Coverage of one survivor’s return to Poland — and memories of Auschwitz.
  • Auschwitz-Birkenau. Photos by Alan Jacobs.
  • Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State. “A Chronological Exploration of the Largest Mass Murder Site in History”, by PBS Television.

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:

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