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At Auschwitz, Pope Invokes a 'Heartfelt Cry'
The symbolism of the Auschwitz visit -- intended to promote reconciliation between Christians and Jews, as well as Germans and Poles -- was undercut by an assault Saturday on the chief rabbi of Poland.
Rabbi Michael Schudrich, a native of New York, said he was punched and pepper-sprayed in Warsaw by a young man shouting "Poland for the Poles!" Authorities with the Polish Interior Ministry said they were looking for a 25-year-old suspect and called the attack a "provocation aimed at creating an image of Poland as an anti-Semitic country."
Schudrich participated in Sunday's ceremony at Auschwitz and chanted the kaddish , or Jewish prayer for the dead, before Benedict's speech. Schudrich called the altercation in Warsaw a reflection of worsening anti-Semitism in Poland but said he did not want it to overshadow the pope's visit. "Ultra-rightists who felt somehow constrained in their behavior now feel they can do whatever they want," he told the Associated Press.
John Paul was credited by many during his 26-year reign for his emphasis on improving relations between Christians and Jews. He was the first pope to visit a synagogue, and he established diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel. He visited Jerusalem in 2000 and deplored "the terrible tragedy" of the Holocaust.
Some Jewish leaders in Poland spoke favorably of Benedict's work to continue those efforts, noting that he also visited a synagogue in Cologne, Germany, last August during his first trip outside Italy as pope.
"If the present pope follows the path shown by John Paul II, then we can only be grateful and very proud about it," Tadeusz Jakubowicz, the leader of the Jewish community in Krakow, said in an interview. "It doesn't matter what origins or nation he represents. He will be the pope of all of us."
For centuries, Krakow -- about 40 miles from Auschwitz -- had a thriving Jewish population, numbering about 70,000 before World War II. Today, there are about 200.
Jakubowicz, 67, was imprisoned by the Nazis in the nearby Plaszow concentration camp as a child. He said 31 of his relatives were killed during the Holocaust. It was both remarkable and proper, he said, for Benedict to make Auschwitz the symbolic climax of his visit to Poland.
"The very fact that a German pope is coming to the concentration camp at Auschwitz and praying, isn't it a gesture of asking for forgiveness?" he said. "I'm almost certain that John Paul knew that Ratzinger was destined to become pope, and I think he knew what he was doing in helping to make that happen."
Benedict's stop at Auschwitz capped a four-day tour of Poland in which the pope honored his popular predecessor, John Paul, at nearly every public event.
Earlier Sunday, Benedict led Mass for an estimated 900,000 people in a field in Krakow, a place where John Paul regularly greeted huge crowds during his papacy and his years as archbishop of the city.