Pope condemns Holocaust but cannot say sorry

In a hall built on ashes of Jewish dead, John Paul refuses to admit Catholic church failed to speak out against wartime genocide
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The Independent Online

The moment that so many Israelis had been waiting for with hope and pain finally came yesterday on a hill outside Jerusalem, in a dark flame-lit hall built on the ashes of victims of the Nazi death camps.

For the first time in history, a pope stood in Israel to share the horror and trauma that did so much to contribute to the creation of the Jewish state 52 years ago.

There were tears, as dreadful memories flooded back. There was powerful, sincere language. But Pope John Paul II did not, and could not, offer the kind of unambiguous apology that some had demanded during his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum yesterday. And, inevitably, there were those who felt disappointed and angry.

As a young man in wartime Poland, John Paul - then Karol Wojtyla - lost Jewish friends in the Holocaust, and saw first hand a small part of Hitler's evil. So no one challenged the sincerity of his text from which he haltingly read, an old man at the lectern, more stooped than usual, his sad, wizened face illuminated by the orange glow of Yad Vashem's eternal flame.

He did not directly condemn the church, or the war-time pontiff, Pius XII, for turning their backs as the Nazi war machine claimed six million lives, because to do so would mean admitting the fallibility of both a pope and the church. Instead - not for the first time - he distanced the Vatican from the blame, pinning it on the "Godless ideology" of the Nazis.

But to an audience that included seven survivors from the Holocaust, of which one was a boyhood friend from Poland, he spoke of the Holocaust as a memory which "lives on and burns itself into our soul". As he greeted the line of survivors of the camps, one of them, Edith Tzirer, 69, wept. The pontiff put a hand on her shoulder.

"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," the Pope said in his address."More than half a century has passed but the memories remain.

"Here, as at Auschwitz and many other places in Europe, we are overcome by the echo of the heart-rending laments of so many. Men, women and children cry out to us from the depths of the horror that they knew. How can we fail to heed their cry?" In a remark aimed at those denying the Holocaust, he continued: "No one can forget or ignore what happened. No one can diminish its scale. We wish to remember ... to ensure that never again will evil prevail as it did for the millions of innocent victims of Nazism."

The Pope has condemned the Holocaust before. And, as he did yesterday, he has stated that Christians (without specifically mentioning Catholics) have been guilty of persecution and anti-Semitism. But to do so before the memorial to the victims gave his words weight. His host at the ceremony, Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, whose grandparents died at the Treblinka camp, said the Pope's presence in Yad Vashem was the climax of reconciliation between Catholics and Jews.

That process has been under way for four decades, after 2,000 years of persecution, exile and death inflicted on Jews by Catholics. Although the relationship between the two faiths remains fragile, John Paul II is generally considered by Israel as the best pope yet. This pope had done more, Mr Barak said, "to dress the gaping wounds" between Judaism and Christianity "that festered over many bitter centuries".

But it was not enough for Dr Efraim Zuroff, Nazi-hunter and director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. "What we were hoping for was an unequivocal statement condemning the silence of Pius XII during the Holocaust. To put all the blame on a Godless ideology is totally ignoring the highly significant role played by the teachings of the Christian church, which paved the way for the Holocaust and which enabled many devout Catholics to participate in the persecution and murder of Jews," he said.

Dr Ron Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel: "The context was more important than the content. This was a religious, spiritual speech. I almost felt the Pope was a modern psalmist. It was almost a prayer. They've gone as far as they're able to go theologically. It's another symbolic gesture towards repentance. Jews can always write a better Catholic speech than the Catholics."