Mixed Reaction to Pope's Holocaust Memorial Visit

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Visiting Israel's national Holocaust memorial on Thursday, Pope John Paul II called for a new relationship between Christians and Jews, but the Pontiff stopped short of apologizing for the Vatican's silence about Nazi atrocities during World War II.

Although the ceremony in the dimly lit Hall of Remembrance at Yad V'Shem in Jerusalem was deeply moving, initial reactions to the Pope's speech were mixed.

Expectations had been high that the Pope would correct what many Jews saw as a shortcoming in not specifically mentioning the Holocaust when he apologized two weeks ago for the church's past wrongs to Jews and other groups.

Pope John Paul II, the first Pontiff to ever visit Yad V'Shem, called on Jews and Christians to remember the Holocaust and so prevent a reoccurrence of such evil.

"We wish to remember," he said. "But we wish to remember for a purpose, namely to ensure that never again will evil prevail as it did for the millions of innocent victims of Nazism.

"How could man have such utter contempt for man?: Because he had reached the point of contempt for God. Only a godless ideology could plan and carry out the extermination of a whole people," the Pope said.

The closest he came to what many Jews hoped to hear was a reference to Christian anti-Semitism.

"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," he said.

"In this place of solemn remembrance, I fervently pray that our sorrow for the tragedy which the Jewish people suffered in the 20th century will lead to a new relationship between Christians and Jews," Pope John Paul II said.

In a response that appeared to bring tears to the Pontiff's eyes, Prime Minister Ehud Barak paid tribute to those who had risked their own lives to save the Jews.

"From the depths of the 'long night of the Shoah [Holocaust],' as you have called it, we saw flickers of light, shining like beacons against the utter darkness around them," said Barak, whose own grandparents perished in the Treblinka death camp in Poland.

"These were the righteous gentiles, mostly children of your faith, who secretly risked their lives to save the lives of others. Their names are inscribed on the walls around us here at Yad V'Shem"; they are forever inscribed on the tablets of our hearts."

As a young Polish priest, John Paul, then Karol Wojtyla, witnessed the persecution of the Jews. At one point in the ceremony he was introduced to six Holocaust survivors, one of whom he had carried to a place where she could receive help at the end of the war.

Disappointment, if there was any, was masked by the event itself, which took place in the dark and silent Hall of Remembrance, where an eternal flame burns and ashes of victims of the Holocaust death camps are buried beneath a slab in the floor

For Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Directorate of Yad V'Shem, the event was "historical."

Shalev said the need to remember the Holocaust in order to build Christian and Jewish understanding was a positive aspect of the Pope's address.

On the other hand, he said there were expectations that he would ask for forgiveness for the church's wartime role, and that "didn't come true."

More openly disappointed was Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel, who said the address had lacked several key elements.

Zuroff told CNSNews.com that he took issue with the fact the Pope did not condemn the silence of the Catholic Church; the fact he blamed the Holocaust on a godless society when the Church had played an important role: and his failure to mention the State of Israel.

While the Pope appeared to have had no problem affirming the political aspirations of the Palestinians on Wednesday, he neglected to acknowledge the "political and religious significance of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust."

The fact that the Pope "brought no presents" also disturbed Zuroff, who said the Pope could have announced the opening of the Vatican archives for scholars and historians to study the wartime role of the church.

Many Jewish groups in recent years have called on the Vatican to open its wartime records, a call repeated again this week by Israeli lawmaker Natan Sharansky.

Rabbi David Rosen, Director of the Anti-Defamation League in Israel, disagreed with Zuroff's evaluation, and said the visit was "very powerful."

"It's significant in itself that he is here," Rosen told CNSNews.com. Rosen has been heavily involved in the reconciliation process between Israel and the Vatican. "He was powerfully moved and it was moving to see how powerfully moved he was."

According to Rosen, John Paul has "used stronger language" than he did on Thursday about the violence and discrimination of Christians

Rosen said the fact that the Pope said what he did at Yad V'Shem was, in itself, the significant thing.

"I'm sure some will be disappointed in certain questions," Rosen said, citing those who had called for a denunciation of the wartime pope.

Pius XII has been accused of having turned a blind eye to the Nazi persecution of Jews and of having remained silent on the matter. His defenders say he saved many more Jewish lives by remaining silent.

Pope John Paul II is a staunch supporter of the move to beatify Pius.

Rosen met the Pope earlier on Thursday during the Pontiff's courtesy call on President Ezer Weizman.

The Pope also was received on Thursday by the Israel's two Chief Rabbis who gave him a special Bible.

On Friday, Pope John Paul II will celebrate a giant Mass for 100,000 people in Korazim, overlooking the Sea of Galilee.