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Whose Silence?

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, June 6, 2006

ROME -- I write with hesitation, with respect, with awe and with a profound, humbling and scary sense that I am about to go, as they say, above my pay grade. But what, I have to ask, did the pope mean by what he said at Auschwitz?

Pope Benedict XVI went late last month to that place where 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered -- that memorial to the very worst in mankind, that factory whose sole product was death, and this is what he said: "In a place like this, words fail. In the end, there can only be a dread silence -- a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God. Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?"

Others have asked how the Vatican under Pope Pius XII could have remained silent during the Holocaust. Some have asked how the Polish church in particular could have remained silent even when Poles massacred around 40 Jewish Holocaust survivors in the city of Kielce. This was in July 1946, almost two years after the liberation of Poland. The police stood by. The army stood by. The church said nothing. Silence. Silence. Silence.

Benedict also visited the cell where Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest, died a slow, horrible death -- first by starvation, finally by injection. Kolbe is a saint now, a genuine martyr. He had volunteered to take the place of another man chosen for execution. But Kolbe, unfortunately, personifies the Polish church of his time. He had been the publisher of a religious monthly, Knight of the Immaculate, which contained anti-Semitic articles. In religious terms, he is undoubtedly a saint -- but not to me. My saints are not bigots.

In his silence on these matters, Benedict is typical. His predecessor, the marvelous John Paul II, championed the beatification of Kolbe and also once put Pius XII on the fast track to sainthood. But Pius is the most famous of all the church's silent men. He said nothing publicly during the Holocaust. Silence. Silence. Silence.

Now, though, Benedict has actually said something. He said more or less what I did after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau -- and before that, Treblinka, and afterward, Buchenwald and Terezin. He said what I said after reading a shelf of books on the Holocaust and listening to the stories of survivors: "Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?" Only I put it differently. Where were you, God? I don't think You were silent. I don't even think You were there.

Religious people can wrestle with the pope's remarks. What does it mean that God was silent? That He approved? That He liked what He saw? That He didn't give a damn? You tell me. And what does it mean that He could "tolerate all this"? That the Nazis were okay by Him? That even the murder of Catholic clergy was no cause for intercession? I am at a loss to explain this. I cannot believe in such a God.

This is a God who was away from his desk or something and did not notice the plumes of human ash reaching to the heavens themselves. Is that what the pope wants us to believe? No, I think it is something even worse: If God was silent, who could blame the church for being silent, too? Is that what Benedict is saying? If so, he is continuing the tradition of saying nothing.

I know Holocaust survivors who are religious. I don't understand it. I know others who feel that Auschwitz is proof that there is no God. I understand that. I am sure there are people who feel that way about Biafra or Rwanda or even Hurricane Katrina. I can understand all of that, too.

I give Benedict some credit. Not from him do we get the inane God of American optimism, the deity of American politics who is always compassionate and on our side and will make everything just wonderful if only we put our faith in him. This is the Chamber of Commerce God of George W. Bush and sometimes, when Bush talks that way, I want to scream "Auschwitz!" at him. Auschwitz! Mr. President, have you ever heard of Auschwitz?

Rome is beautiful, as always, and the monuments and buildings raised in the name of religion are stunning, as always, and I want to go directly to the Vatican, bang on the pope's door and demand that he answer my questions. But I imagine he would look at me with pity because I hear nothing but silence and he, buoyed by faith, just listens harder.

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In my May 30 column, I mistakenly wrote that Henry Adams had been ambassador to Britain. It was his father who served, as minister to England.

cohenr@washpost.com

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