Pope Recalls Holocaust Victims at Jerusalem Memorial

Pope Benedict XVI travels to Jordan and Israel on an eight-day visit to the Middle East.
By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

JERUSALEM, May 11 -- Pope Benedict XVI made a solemn visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial on Monday, saying that the memory of those massacred during World War II serves as "a cry raised against every act of injustice and violence."

"They lost their lives, but they will never lose their names. These are indelibly etched in the hearts of their loved ones, their surviving fellow prisoners and all those determined never to allow such an atrocity to disgrace mankind again," Benedict said.

The pope's visit to Yad Vashem is one of the symbolic highlights of his eight-day trip to Jordan and Israel. As a young man in Bavaria during World War II, Benedict served in a Nazi youth group and later the German army -- virtually unavoidable given the situation in Germany at the time, but part of a biography that makes him a rarity at one of the Jewish state's central institutions.

He pledged that the Catholic Church is "committed to praying and working tirelessly to ensure that hatred will never reign in the hearts of men again."

Benedict spoke from the memorial's Hall of Remembrance, a stone room lit by a perpetual flame and inscribed with the names of the major camps where Jews and other minorities were put to death. It includes the entombed ashes of Holocaust victims.

Dressed in white robes, he laid a wreath of yellow and white flowers on the stone slab covering the ashes, paused briefly with hands clasped, and bowed. During a ceremony that included the writings of a Jewish poet killed while fighting in the war, the pope also met briefly with six Holocaust survivors.

Call for a Palestinian State

The visit came on a day when Benedict urged Israel and the Palestinians to settle their differences "so that people can live in security in a homeland of their own, with internationally recognized borders." Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who was in attendance when the pope made his remarks, has expressed skepticism over the idea of establishing a Palestinian state, as called for by the United States.

Other high-profile Germans with similar wartime backgrounds have visited Yad Vashem, a sprawling complex on a Jerusalem hilltop that includes an extensive museum and research facility. In 1995, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who also was in a Nazi youth group, made an official visit during which he referred to the "deep shame" Germany felt over the organized extermination of millions.

But Benedict's arrival at the memorial tapped even deeper issues at the core of relations between Catholics and Jews.

Benedict's decision to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, Richard Williamson, is one point of contention. He also reauthorized use of a Latin prayer that asked for Jews to be "delivered from their darkness" and accept the divinity of Jesus. While the language eventually was toned down, the prayer still hearkened back to age-old tensions between the two faiths.

Yad Vashem director Avner Shalev said he considered Benedict's remarks a "serious and important" acknowledgment of what the Holocaust represents, but said he also found the language "a bit restrained." He and other officials at the memorial said they were expecting a more personal expression of empathy, rather than the general remarks Benedict delivered. "Maybe our expectations were too high," Shalev said.

Benedict's comments at the memorial and at other points during his trip have emphasized the universality of faith. In Jordan he spoke of the "inseparable bond" between Judaism and Christianity.

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