Pope speaks at Holocaust Memorial

Posted: Thursday, March 23, 2000

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Pope John Paul II, uttering words both historic and personal in a dark, flame-lit hall at Israel's Holocaust Memorial, said today that the Roman Catholic Church is ``deeply saddened'' by Christian persecution of Jews throughout history.

Though many Jews praised the pope's words at the Yad Vashem Memorial, some had hoped for more. The pope did not assign any blame to the Catholic church hierarchy for its silence during the Holocaust, and he did not mention Pope Pius XII, the wartime pontiff accused by many Jews of failing to speak out while their brethren were killed.

The somber ceremony, attended by Israeli officials, Holocaust survivors and Jewish friends from the pope's own hometown in Poland, was punctuated by small, touching moments as well as grand gestures.

A Holocaust survivor presented to the pope began crying, and he gently patted her arm in consolation. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, his emotion evident in the hoarseness of his voice, at one point helped the frail pontiff from his chair and handed him his cane. A long-ago letter from a Holocaust victim to her son, read out at the ceremony, moved many to tears.

``I have come to Yad Vashem to pay homage to the millions of Jewish people who, stripped of everything, especially of their human dignity, were murdered in the Holocaust,'' John Paul said.

``As bishop of Rome and successor of the Apostle Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love, and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place,'' the pope said.

``I fervently pray that our sorrow ... will lead to a new relationship between Christians and Jews. Let us build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Jewish feeling among Christians or anti-Christian feeling among Jews.''

John Paul's words, coming during a historic weeklong Holy Land pilgrimage and the first official papal visit to Israel, were seen as the crowning chapter of efforts through his 22-year papacy to reconcile Jews and Christians.

Nonetheless, some felt his speech should have included a clear apology.

``The pope could have dealt with and even expressed regret over the behavior of the church in those days,'' said Danny Naveh, son of a Holocaust survivor and a legislator from the opposition Likud Party.

But even those who hoped the words would be different could not help but be struck by the stunning image of the pontiff entering Yad Vashem's dark Hall of Remembrance, its stone floor engraved with the names of death camps, and rekindling the eternal flame that burns in memory of the 6 million Jews who died in the Nazi genocide -- among them childhood friends from the pope's hometown, Wadowice.

``The pope's very gesture of coming here,'' said Eli Zborowski, one of six survivors who met the pope, ``marks a turning point for Jews and Christians. He will be well written in the history of the human race, and of the Jewish people.''

Barak said John Paul had done more than any other church leader ``to dress the bitter wounds that festered over many bitter centuries.'' The prime minister's grandparents perished in the Treblinka death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

``I think I can say, your Holiness, that your coming here today ... is a climax of this historic journey of healing,'' he said. ``This very moment holds within it two thousand years of history.''

The pontiff is seen by many Israelis not only as the leader of 1 billion Catholics, but as the representative of the entire Christian world. The visit capped a morning of remarkable gestures to Israel and the Jewish people. In a meeting with President Ezer Weizman, the pontiff blessed Israel -- an act seen by many Israelis as final church recognition of their state. For centuries, the Catholic Church taught that the Jews' exile was punishment for the death of Jesus. Pope Paul VI, the last pontiff to visit the Holy Land in 1964, had not mentioned Israel by name and refused to address the Israeli president by his title.

In a display of Catholic-Jewish amity, the pope also met Israel's two chief rabbis, Eliyahu Bakshi Doron and Israel Meir Lau, at their office in west Jerusalem. The two black-robed, bearded rabbis handed the white-clad pontiff a Bible, the dedication an allusion to religious coexistence from the book of the Prophet Micah.

But it was the Yad Vashem visit, broadcast live on Israeli TV, that was the most momentous -- and the most personal.

Born Karol Wojtyla in the town of Wadowice near Krakow 79 years ago, John Paul witnessed the persecution of Jews as a young seminary student and said time had not erased the terrible memories.

``I remember my Jewish friends and neighbors, some of whom perished, while others survived,'' he said.

An emotional highlight of the somber ceremony at Yad Vashem was the reading of a letter from a Polish Jew to her gentile friend, whom she asked to look after her 7-year-old son in hopes of protecting him from the Nazis.

``I am sure that you can find it in your heart to love him. Every day I pray to God that on account of my suffering, he will be happy in the future,'' wrote the mother, Genia Kleptish-Yudska.

Both Genia and her son, Michael, perished in Auschwitz.

John Paul was the first pope to visit the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz and attend services at a Rome synagogue. Two weeks ago, he apologized for the sins of Christians throughout history, including those against Jews, though he did not mention the Holocaust specifically.

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