On Jan. 27, 1945, the Soviet Army entered Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland, and liberated its remaining 7,000 prisoners. The marking of its 70th anniversary yesterday offers a time for reflection.
On June 7, 1979, Pope John Paul II visited Brzezinka (Birkenau), part of the Auschwitz complex. He declared, “I am here today as a pilgrim. It is well known that I have been here many times. So many times! And many times I have gone down to Maximilian Kolbe’s death cell and stopped in front of the execution wall and passed among the ruins of the cremation furnaces of Brzezinka. It was impossible for me not to come here as pope.”
On May 28, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI returned to Brzezinka and said, “Pope John Paul II came here as a son of the Polish people. 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.”
John Paul II said “impossible”; Benedict XVI said “could not fail.” These references suggest a God-driven unity embracing the Church’s own past and her present, between God’s people of Israel and his new Israel.
Poland, the Catholic nation of Europe — its red-and-white flag reminding us of the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side — had also been crucified. John Paul II, during his visit to Brzezinka, observed pointedly that 6 million Poles lost their lives during World War II.
All during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Poland, the sun was shining. On the day he went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, it rained. But when he went to the memorial to celebrate the interfaith prayer service, the sun shone, and a beautiful rainbow appeared over the land: “I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Genesis 9:13).
In Jesus’ time, many individual Jews followed him as the Messiah. But the Jewish national leaders, the Sanhedrin, refused and persecuted the early Christians. After a time, the Christians became more numerous and persecuted the Jews. Men who worship a Torah-observant Jewish Messiah can never persecute Jews, but many did. Still, Jews were always allowed to escape persecution by disavowing Judaism.
Germany’s Nuremberg race law of 1935, however, was relentless in its classifications. The Nazis gave no opportunity for individual Jews to affirm or deny their faith. The Holocaust was a crucifixion of the Jewish nation. For the first time in 2,000 years, the Jews were crucified as a nation.
During the Holocaust, Pope Pius XII, with the heroic support of Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty and all the clergy, did everything he could to save Jews from the Nazi death maw. Rabbi Pinchas Lapide, a senior Israeli historian with access to the Yad Vashem archives, in his Three Popes and the Jews, wrote:
“The final number of Jewish lives in whose rescue the Catholic Church had been instrumental is thus at least 700,000 souls, but in all probability is much closer to the maximum of 860,000. ... These figures ... exceed by far those saved by all other churches, religious institutions and rescue organizations combined” (p. 215).
The New York Times, the institution set up to speak out against the Holocaust, said nothing. The International Red Cross, the institution set up to rescue refugees, did nothing.
Many Jews saw the Church’s heroic efforts and realized that God had transformed the Catholic Church. Jesus told us, “Love your enemies,” but, now, we had to look at those words again. In St. Matthew’s original Greek, Jesus said, “Agapao tous echthrous.” Agapao is a form of agape, the perfect love given entirely for another’s happiness. And echthrous, from echtho, was a bitter enemy. God created man in his own image, and, now, Jews looked at the Church and saw their own dignity in its heart. God blessed the Jewish nation. After 3,000 years without a sovereign state of their own, and three years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the Jewish people established the sovereign land of Israel as their own.
The religious hatred of the Jews has been stirring during this past half century. Pope John Paul II declared on June 14, 1987, in a meeting with Jewish leaders in Warsaw, that in the Holocaust the entire Jewish nation had become an Old Testament prophet:
“More than anyone else, it is precisely you who have become the saving warning. I think that, in this sense, you continue your particular vocation, showing yourselves still to be the heirs of that election to which God is faithful. This is your mission in the contemporary world, before all the peoples, the nations, all of humanity, the Church.”
Auschwitz had been a godless place where man’s fallen nature ruled. God had led the Jewish nation from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Israel, from Auschwitz to freedom in a new Israel, and all men from life in sin to life in his new and eternal covenant. It remains a freedom to struggle, to ask God for the grace to reach above human possibility on the journey to eternal life.
Marty Barrack is a member of the board of directors at the Association of Hebrew Catholics.
He is the author of the website Second Exodus.