Israel’s leading daily paper, Yediot Ahronot, ran a stinging editorial yesterday, on the eve of the Papal visit.
The editorial attacked Pope Benedict XVI for his involuntary service in the Hitler Youth and German Wehrmacht during World War II as well as the mistakes surrounding lifting the excommunication of Richard Williamson, a Holocaust-denying bishop, earlier this year.
The Pope joined the Hitler Youth as he was legally bound to do under German law at the time, but according to his book Salt of the Earth, he did everything he could to get out and was allowed to leave because he desired to enter seminary. The book also recounts how the then-Joseph Ratzinger served in the German army under an anti-Nazi officer who allowed him to desert his unit.
The editorial said: “Pope Benedict XVI will arrive [today] for his historic visit to Israel… Under this dark shadow, the Pope will visit Yad Vashem [today] at noon, a visit whose importance cannot be exaggerated.
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“The Holy See, the head of the Catholic Church, the same church whose Pope, during World War II, did nothing to save Jews from the gas chambers, will meet there with those who survived that hell and succeeded in establishing a state here. The meeting will be too difficult for some concentration camp survivors who do not understand why they should host Pope Benedict XVI so nicely.”
However, six survivors of the Nazi horrors have volunteered to greet the Pope at the Yad Vashem Memorial for 6 Million Jews.
Gita Calderon, 83, is one of them.
“I feel that I am my people’s emissary to the Pope,” Ms. Calderon, whose entire family was killed in the Holocaust, said over the weekend. “If I could, I would tell him that the wound of the Holocaust has never healed for me. The wound is painful and bleeds all the time.”
Ms. Calderon is aware of Pope Benedict XVI’s past, but thinks that one should look ahead.
“I know that in his youth, the Pope was in the Hitler Youth and in the German army,” she says. “I hope that he did so because he was too young to understand. I hope that he also regrets it. The actions of the Nazis can never be forgiven. But we must demand of the Pope that he agree to rectify the errors that he made when he was young.”
Dan Landsberg, 70, will also shake the Pope’s hand today. Unlike Ms. Calderon, he claims that he is not excited by the occasion.
“I know that the Pope is a very important person, but I don’t look at this whole meeting from a personal perspective,” he said. “I was chosen to be a representative of the state and of my people, and all I need to do is to try to represent my people honorably.”
The Pope will also shake the hand of survivors Ed Mossberg, Yisraela Har-El, Avraham Ashkenazi and Ruth Bondy, and the hand of a “Righteous Gentile” Ivan Varantich who saved Jews during the war.
Other survivors politely refused the invitation to the historic event. Among them was former Member of Israel’s Knesset, Shmuel Halpert.
“I think that the Pope never should have been invited to the State of Israel,” Mr. Halpert told Yediot Ahronot. “Pope Benedict XVI was a member of the Nazi movement, and as a Holocaust survivor I cannot participate in ceremony honoring such a man, who was part of the war against the Jewish people. Everybody knows about the thundering silence of Pope Pius XII during World War II. Pope Pius XII and his people could have saved at least hundreds of thousands of Jews, but did not.”
These contentions, however, are disputed by world-renowned Jewish scholar, Rabbi David Dalin, whose research claims Pius XII saved more Jews during the Holocaust than Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg and other notables who saved Jews from the Nazis.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who survived the Bergen Belsen concentration camp as a small child and who now serves as the rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa and as the head of Yad Vashem’s board, said that despite the “stumblings” of the Pope, his visit to Israel should not be rejected “in order not to give Israel’s enemies an occasion to speak.”
“I expect that during the Pope’s speech at Yad Vashem, he will make statements that will dispel the fog around his relationship with Judaism and strengthen the bridge that his predecessor built,” he said.
Rabbi Lau recalls that, over the past several weeks, many people contacted him about the meeting with the Pope.
“Some asked for an opportunity to shake the Pope’s hand, while others wanted to give him notes or other souvenirs. Still others said that their families had been in contact with the Pope’s family, the Ratzingers, and wanted to reminisce with him. He must be received politely and with respect, but we must not be obsequious toward him.”
David Bedein can be reached at email@example.com