Pope Benedict XVI’s failure to issue a clear denunciation of antisemitism in his speech Sunday at the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex has unleashed a wave of discontent among the Vatican’s main Jewish interlocutors and in liberal Catholic circles.
The speech initially was seen as an opportunity for Benedict to signal his determination to carry on his predecessor’s commitment to advancing Jewish-Catholic reconciliation, with the added symbolism of a German-born pontiff honoring the victims of the infamous Nazi death camp. Instead, Benedict found himself being criticized for what he failed to say.
Just a day before the speech, Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, was attacked with pepper spray on a central Warsaw street by a man allegedly yelling, “Poland is for Poles.” The Polish president and prime minister condemned the attack. Schudrich blamed it on the rise of far-right ideology in the country and on the inclusion of two small, ultra-nationalist parties in the new governing coalition, effectively legitimizing their views. The Polish government has been dogged by critics who say it has fostered a dangerous environment by failing to confront antisemitism.
Against that backdrop, some observers said that Benedict committed a blunder by failing to speak directly about the Jewish victims of the Holocaust or to criticize the alleged rise of antisemitism in Poland.
“I must say that as one who appreciates his positive role in relation to the Jewish people, I found his speech to be disappointing,” said Rabbi David Rosen, an American Jewish Committee official who heads the Jewish coalition that serves as the Vatican’s official dialogue partner. “This was a golden opportunity…and he blew it.”
Rosen speculated that Benedict probably felt that by saying how difficult it was to visit Auschwitz as a pope and a German, he was “saying it all.” But, Rosen added, “if that’s what he thinks, I can assure him that that it was not the way it was heard by all.
Father John Pawlikowski, a Chicago-based theologian who was part of the Vatican delegation to Poland, said that the symbolism of a German pope praying at the markers for the various victims of the death camp was “powerful.” But he added, “The greatest disappointments were the omission of any strong statement on antisemitism past and present and the church’s own role in propagating it, including among affiliated Catholic groups in Poland today. Here, his talk was underwhelming and not in keeping with the much stronger statements made by Pope John Paul II.”
During his speech, the pontiff discussed the difficulty of being a German visiting Auschwitz and wondered about God’s silence during the Holocaust.
“In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can be only a dread silence,” he said. “A silence which itself is a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent?”
While Jewish officials praised his commitment to Jewish-Catholic dialogue and his decision to go to Auschwitz, they were dismayed by his silence on antisemitism and saw in his claim that Germany was overtaken by Nazis in the 1930s a failure to acknowledge the prime responsibility of his fellow countrymen for the Holocaust. Benedict, who was forced to enroll in the Hitler Youth as a teenager, has made such pronouncements about Germany’s role in the past.
Critics stressed that by paying tribute in his remarks to all the victims at Auschwitz, he failed to recognize the expressly Jewish dimension of the mass killings at the camp. They also pointed out that two of the victims he mentioned specifically were Father Maximilian Kolbe, who edited an antisemitic Catholic publication, and Edith Stein, a Jew who converted to Catholicism.
“We are surprised, upset and sad,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “He talked about the universal dimension of the Holocaust in the world’s largest Jewish cemetery, and he did not talk about the specific policy against the Jews. So it’s a missed opportunity and a step back.”
Some Jewish communal observers found reasons to praise the speech, despite their disappointment.
“It is unfortunate that Pope Benedict did not call more explicit attention to antisemitism when he was at Auschwitz,” said Rabbi Eugene Korn, director of Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Congress. “More significantly, however, he stated that Jews were — and continue to be — witnesses to God who spoke to the Jewish people at Sinai.”
Israel Singer, the chairman of the policy council of the World Jewish Congress, who will be in Rome for a regular review of Jewish-Vatican relations next week, said that the “state of Vatican-Jewish relations at this time is very good irrespective of any immediate event.”
The visit took place as Poland already faces Jewish criticism for the decision by Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz to include the League of Polish Families, a far-right Catholic party known for its anti-Jewish and anti-gay positions, in a coalition government. Its leader, Roman Giertych, was appointed minister of education; he formerly headed All-Polish Youth, whose members have been photographed giving the Nazi salute, according to media reports.
Schudrich said that the league’s rise in the polls — it garnered 8% of the vote in the 2005 parliamentary elections — helped account for the attack on him as well as for other recent incidents, including anti-Jewish threats sent by text message to Jewish student leaders, and the stabbing of an anti-fascist by skinheads in Warsaw. A day after he was attacked, Schudrich participated in the ceremony at Auschwitz, reciting the Kaddish memorial prayer for the dead before Benedict’s speech.
The visit to Auschwitz capped Benedict’s four-day pilgrimage to the homeland of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. During the pope’s visit, Giertych said on the radio that he planned to require high school students to pass a “religious exam” — meaning a Catholic knowledge test — in order to graduate.
When Giertych came to see the pope at Auschwitz-Birkenau, he seemed puzzled when asked by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about his antisemitic image. “I am a lawyer and have many Jewish friends,” he said. “I drink beer with them.”
When asked if he had a message for those worried about the antisemitic nature of his party, he said: “That’s why I am here today — I am a friend of the Jewish nation.”