Pope Notes 'Insane' Ideology of Nazis During Synagogue Visit

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 19, 2005; 8:18 AM

COLOGNE, Germany, Aug. 19 -- Pope Benedict XVI, the first German pontiff in 500 years, said "the insane, racist ideology" of Nazism gave rise to the Holocaust and pledged to improve relations between Catholics and Jews during a historic visit Thursday to a synagogue, becoming only the second pope to enter a Jewish house of worship.

Benedict, a one-time member of the Hitler Youth who deserted the German military during the waning days of World War II, paid tribute to an estimated 11,000 Jews from Cologne who died during the Holocaust during a visit to a synagogue that was destroyed by the Nazis in 1938 but rebuilt in the 1950s.

"The holiness of God was no longer recognized, and consequently contempt was shown for the sacredness of human life," Benedict said. He quoted his predecessor, John Paul II, who said memories of the Holocaust must "never cease to rouse consciences, to resolve conflicts, to inspire the building of peace."

Upon entering the Cologne synagogue, Benedict stopped to pray briefly in a memorial room to the estimated 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust and promised to continue John Paul's efforts to build a "friendship" and closer ties between Roman Catholics and Jews.

During his 27-year reign, John Paul became the first pope to visit a synagogue when he entered a Jewish temple in Rome in 1986, established diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel and made a historic visit to Jerusalem.

Benedict stopped short of apologizing for the Catholic church's failure to take a stronger public stand against the Nazis during World War II and the Holocaust, something that many Jewish leaders have urged.

Abraham Lehrer, a Jewish community leader in Cologne, publicly asked Benedict during the synagogue visit to further open the Vatican's archives from World War II to detail the church's response to the Holocaust. Such a gesture "would be a further sign of historical conscience and would also satisfy critics," Lehrer said.

Benedict did not respond directly to the request. But in his speech he made a general reference to such disputes, saying he "would encourage sincere and trustful dialogue between Jews and Christians, for only in this way will it be possible to arrive at a shared interpretation of disputed historical questions."

Many Jewish leaders, including several in Germany, praised Benedict's election as pope in April, saying he shared John Paul's commitment to mending relations between Jews and Catholics. But some sore points have already emerged during Benedict's short reign.

Benedict drew criticism from Israel after he failed to single out the Jewish state as a victim of terrorism in a statement he issued in July decrying the London suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks around the world. The Vatican responded with criticism of its own, accusing Israel of trying to put words in the pope's mouth.

Benedict is scheduled to continue his outreach to leaders of other faiths on Saturday in a visit with Muslim leaders in Cologne, where he is spending four days to attend a global summit of Catholic youths. It is Pope Benedict's first foreign trip.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company