Editor's Note: When the Pope visited on July 29, he wrote, “Lord have mercy on your people! Lord, forgiveness for so much cruelty!” in the “Memory Book.” He also prayed in the darkened cell of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest martyred in Auschwitz.
The following piece was a preview of the papal visit to this hallowed ground.
OSWIECIM, Poland — One of the largest graveyards in the world stretches across 200 acres in Poland.
Over the course of his life, Menachem Rosensaft has visited this place many times: It contains the ashes of his older brother, members of his extended family and countless other Jewish families.
The Nazis’ Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps are a graveyard for nearly 1 million Jewish grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and cousins. Their cremated remains — along with those of hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish victims of the Nazi German ideology — cover the ground and linger in the dust of the air.
“That is the reality,” Rosensaft, the general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, told the Register.
But when Pope Francis comes to Auschwitz as part of his journey to World Youth Day in Krakow, he will not be simply one of many visitors of the Nazi death camp’s open-air museum of ruined buildings, gas chambers and crematoria, where exhibit after exhibit chronicles man’s monstrous capacity to inflict evil upon his fellow man.
Instead, Rosensaft sees the papal journey having a different tone — that of a pilgrim who is going to Auschwitz in “the same way that a relative, descendant, son or grandson of the dead might go there.”
“This is a personal visit for him; it’s very natural and genuine,” said Rosensaft, adding that the reality of Auschwitz is very much part of the Holy Father’s consciousness, with whom he has corresponded.
Both St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI have visited this place, delivering speeches reflecting on the tragedy and horror against people that the Nazis deemed “unworthy of life.”
But when Pope Francis comes, the visit will have no speeches. He will come to pray alone on Friday, asking the Lord for the “grace to cry.” His only words will be the ones he writes in the Book of Remembrance.
“This is who he is,” Rosensaft said. When Pope Francis was archbishop of Buenos Aires, he built a strong friendship with Argentina’s Jewish community, wrote a book with his friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka that discussed the Holocaust, and even held joint commemorations at the cathedral, praying for the dead and mourning their loss together. He has continued to do this as pope, Rosensaft added, becoming “perhaps the foremost moral, ethical role model of our day for all human beings, Catholics, Christians and non-Christians alike.”
“I’m very moved by the fact that [Pope Francis] is going there, but I’m also totally not surprised that he’s going the way he is going there. It’s a reflection of the extraordinary individual that he is.”
Rabbi Arthur Schneier, 86, a survivor of the Holocaust and senior rabbi at Park East Synagogue in New York, told the Register that he recently had the opportunity to thank Pope Francis in Rome for making this pilgrimage to Auschwitz, which also contains the remains of Schneier’s own family members, who were deported from Hungary in 1944.
“The crematoria are really my family’s cemetery, my graveyard,” he said.
He noted that when St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI each came to Auschwitz as pope, they had lived their early lives under the shadow of World War II and the Holocaust. St. John Paul II had lived under the Nazi terror in occupied Krakow, slightly over 35 miles away from Auschwitz, where one could smell, and never forget, the smoke of the crematoria in the air.
Benedict XVI was a German teenager who watched his people elect Adolf Hitler and the Nazis — knowing full well their hatred of Jews, enshrined in the Nazi platform — and plunge the entire continent into a cataclysm of war and genocide that would wipe out eight out of every 10 Jews in Europe, one out of five Poles in Poland and millions more.
Francis’ Witness to the World
But Francis is the first non-European pope to visit Auschwitz, Rabbi Schneier noted. His affirmation of the truth of the Holocaust comes at a time when many of the survivors of the Holocaust are starting to pass away, and as denial of the Holocaust is on the rise in Europe and all over the world.
“In his very presence, he stands for life and not for death,” the rabbi said. “Auschwitz is a time for reflection and remorse.”
The reflection also comes at a much-needed time in the world’s contemporary history.
“Auschwtiz has a universal message, and, tragically, we kept saying, ‘Never again; never again.’ But it is happening in our own day again,” the rabbi said. He pointed to the “scourge of terrorism” worldwide, as the latest example, which has claimed thousands of men, women and children “regardless of faith,” whether they be Muslims slaughtered in Baghdad or Istanbul at the height of Ramadan or Christian minorities in Syria and Iraq targeted for extermination.
“This is a very turbulent, unstable world, and Pope Francis has won the faith and confidence of people because he understands the pain of those who are oppressed,” Rabbi Schneier said. “His deeds and actions are eloquent by themselves; they are very forceful.”
Many Holocaust survivors, including the rabbi, “had very high hopes” humanity would learn from the past, as did the survivors who found their triumph over evil in building up goodness in a world, so others would not have to live through what they did.
“I myself saw my synagogue burned at Kristallnacht in Vienna,” he said, adding that he literally watched book burnings lead to synagogue burnings and then to the burning of human beings. But Rabbi Schneier, founder of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, made “a deal with God” at his liberation in 1945: He would work for the religious freedom, interreligious cooperation and human rights of all, in thanksgiving for his survival. His response to his personal encounter with evil was love, not hatred.
“Hate consumes love, and I prefer using my energy to spread love and peaceful coexistence.”
World Youth Day and Auschwitz
The Holy Father is expected to meet with some of the death camp’s survivors, pray at the “Death Wall” by Block 11, at the cell of St. Maximilian Kolbe and at the monument to the victims in the Birkenau concentration camp.
World Youth Day lasts from July 26 to 31, and Auschwitz forms a significant part of the event, which coincides with the Year of Mercy. The World Youth Day website provides information, reflections and prayers for pilgrims going to Auschwitz. More than 350,000 have registered to visit the museum, which are open only to WYD participants between July 20 and 28 and Aug. 1 and 3.
Father John Crossin, executive director for the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, told the Register that Pope Francis’ decision to go to Auschwitz to pray will draw the world’s attention to the event itself and help people reflect on why Auschwitz is important, as a place “where evil manifested itself, where people clung to goodness despite these surroundings.”
“Often the text of the Pope is what gets all the attention,” he said.
But the Pope’s silent gesture will also teach by example the importance of seeking “divine help or divine guidance” first, before acting in response to evil.
“There’s a lot to be gained from silent prayer, because silent reflection is where God would manifest his Spirit,” Father Crossin said.
A Time for Weeping
Gary Krupp, a Jewish leader who runs the Pave the Way Foundation, remembered accompanying Benedict XVI to Auschwitz in 2006. Benedict had stated that the Nazis sought to destroy the Jews, as the living witnesses to God’s promises since Abraham, because in the Nazi vision, “God finally had to die, and power had to belong to man alone.” He reminded people that “the past is never simply the past. It always has something to say to us; it tells us the paths to take and the paths not to take.”
“It’s especially important in light of the level of historical deception about the Holocaust, which is being denied,” he said. Krupp explained that he thinks Pope Pius XII is an example of how it only takes a generation to lose the lessons of the past.
Krupp’s organization is involved in trying to settle the controversy over the role of Pius XII during World War II. He believes the evidence so far — and which the Vatican’s Secret Archives will make clear once they are opened to the public — will vindicate the initial view of Holocaust survivors, such as Krupp’s uncle, who saw the Pope as a hero, instead of the view that the Pope did nothing to stop the atrocity, which emerged after Pius XII’s death. But he sees that the memory of the Holocaust is similarly being lost among adults and their children today.
Krupp explained that Pope Francis’ plea for the Lord to send him the “gift of tears” at Auschwitz — a physical acknowledgment of what occurred — is not just a prayer for himself, but for the world, as well. He said it was far more significant for Pope Francis at this time to pray for this gift than for anything he could say in a speech.
“This generation does not have that gift of tears,” Krupp said. “We’re praying for God to give us the wisdom and give us the task to remember these terrible atrocities and then acknowledge them.”
Remembering the Past
Rosensaft, likewise, hopes that Pope Francis’ prayerful, personal presence at Auschwitz will help others around the world to reflect on their own “instincts, activities and motivations” toward their fellow human beings and take the time to recall the men, women and children who were murdered by an ideology of racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism that ran its course.
Rosensaft himself was born in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp a of couple years after the Allied liberation of his parents. Rosensaft’s correspondence with Pope Francis inspired him to compile and edit God, Faith and Identity From the Ashes, a book of 88 reflections on the Holocaust from the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors such as himself.
Many of them, he said, reflect the words of his friend and mentor, the late Elie Wiesel, “Suffering gives man no privileges; it all depends on what he does with it. If he uses his suffering against man, he betrays it; if he uses it to fight evil and humanize destiny, he elevates it and elevates himself.”
“I think this is also the spiritual philosophy of Pope Francis,” he said.
What people around the world need to remember is that “when we are confronted with Auschwitz, it can either become a cause of railing against the night — and abandoning all faith in human kind, the existence and power of God, in goodness of any kind — or it becomes a catalyst from which and against which one seeks to improve the human condition.”
Today, Rosensaft said, the danger is that people may look for the wrong signs to prevent atrocities similar to Auschwitz, because the past will not repeat itself in the exact same way. If they look for concentration camps and crematoria, they will miss the signs that led to Srebrenica in 1995 — where upwards of 8,000 Muslim Bosnians were killed and buried in mass graves at the hands of the Bosnian Serb Army — or Rwanda in 1994, where nearly a million Tutsis perished at the hands of Hutus, armed mainly with machetes, in the course of 100 days. He added that the world is confronted by a worldwide refugee crisis, but it is “often forgotten” that Jewish refugees ended up condemned to death by the same kind of xenophobia that many Muslim refugees face today.
“By the time gas chambers are in operation, or, if you will, in Rwanda, the machetes are being swung, it is too late,” he said. “The time to confront bigotry, racism and anti-Semitism, and put an end to it, is long before: when the signs of the road that leads to an Auschwitz, or a Srebrenica, or a Rwanda, first becomes apparent.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.