The speech by Pope Benedict XVI Monday at Yad Vashem drew criticism from staff members of the Holocaust memorial, who described it as disappointing and lukewarm.
The chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate, Avner Shalev, said he expected the pope, “who is a human being, too,” to draw on his personal experience to issue a stronger condemnation of Nazis and Germans, who were not directly mentioned in the speech. The pope grew up in Nazi Germany and served in both Hitler Youth and the Wehrmacht, before deserting from the army in 1944. Shalev, however, said the speech was “important,” especially in its criticism of denial of the Holocaust.
The pope spoke at length about the importance of remembering the victims of the Holocaust. “One can rob a neighbor of possessions, opportunity or freedom. One can weave an insidious web of lies to convince others that certain groups are undeserving of respect. Yet, try as one might, one can never take away the name of a fellow human being,” he said.
“May the names of these victims never perish! May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten! And may all people of goodwill remain vigilant in rooting out from the heart of man anything that could lead to tragedies such as this!”
The chairman of Yad Vashem, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, himself a Holocaust survivor, complained of the pope’s usage of the word “millions” instead of the more specific “6 million” when speaking of the Holocaust’s Jewish victims, as well as over his use of the word “killed” rather than “murdered.”
“There’s a dramatic difference between killed and murdered, especially when a speech has gone through so many hands,” Lau said.
Lau also said that the speech “didn’t have a single word of condolence, compassion or sharing the pain of the Jewish people as such. There was a lot about the pain of humanity, cosmopolitan words,” Lau said. Lau, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and a former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, also described the speech as “beautiful and well scripted and very Biblical,” however.
Some of the Holocaust survivors chosen to shake hands with the pope at the ceremony also expressed mixed feelings about the pontiff’s speech.
“It was exciting to meet with the most important dignitary of the Christian world, and his coming to speak at Yad Vashem is very meaningful,” said Avraham Ashkenazi, who as a 4-year-old boy in Nazi-occupied Greece attended church with his parents, who pretended to be Christian in order to survive. “But he’s not all innocent, he was in the Hitler Jugend and the Wehrmacht. He might not have had a choice, although his father opposed the Nazis.”
Other survivors were less critical. “People who expected the pope to apologize or change his mind demonstrated a poor understanding of diplomacy and the Catholic church,” said a founder of the the Company for Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets, Avraham Roth, who attended the ceremony.
Later yesterday the pope met with the parents of captive soldier Gilad Shalit. He promised to do everything he could to obtain a sign of life from him and to aid the negotiations for his release. The Shalits told the pope they were disappointed with the conduct of the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose delegates have not visited Gilad. They gave the pope a copy of the children’s book written by their son before his capture, translated into Italian especially for the pontiff and inscribed in Gilad’s name.
Meanwhile, police declared a “zero tolerance” policy regarding any attempts of protest during the papal visit. In East Jerusalem’s Ambassador Hotel, a press center set up by Palestinians for foreign journalists covering the visit was shut down by police, who also dispersed a press briefing conducted there.
In another incident, right-wing Jewish activists protesting near the President’s Residence in West Jerusalem were dispersed by Border Police.
Two Jews carrying protest signs near Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem were detained, as was a man who was seen throwing paint at a Vatican flag elsewhere in the city.
The traffic jams in Jerusalem yesterday caused by the papal visit were much worse than police had anticipated. Further congestion is expected tomorrow, when Hebron Road will be closed for the duration of the pope’s visit to Bethlehem.