'I could not fail to come here,' says Pope Benedict at historic Auschwitz visit
KRAKOW - The words "I could not fail to come here," with which Pope Benedict XVI opened his address at Auschwitz-Birkenau yesterday, were the same ones his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, uttered in this place in 1979. But what he said next made all the difference: "Pope John Paul II came here as a son of the Polish people. I come here today as a son of the German people. It is a duty to the truth, and the just due of all who suffered here."
Benedict described himself as "a son of that people over which a ring of criminals rose to power through false promises of future greatness and the restoration of the nation's honor, prominence and prosperity, but also through terror and intimidation." The result, he said, was "that our people was used and abused as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power. Yes, I could not fail to come here."
Very restrained, but obviously moved, Benedict spent the last two hours of his visit to Poland at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The rest of his visit was as the head of the Catholic Church; to this place, he came as a German and a Catholic. In his address, he did not evade this dual element in his identity, and he devoted a large portion of his speech to the destruction of the Jewish people, who comprised 95 percent of the approximately 1.2 million victims at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Benedict, his face impassive, passed before the 22 plaques mentioning the peoples exterminated at Auschwitz-Birkenau, each plaque in that people's language. Then he did what the Jewish community of Poland and world Jewry expected of him: He spoke to them and about them.
"Some inscriptions are pointed reminders. There is one in Hebrew. The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth. Thus the words of the Psalm: "We are being killed, accounted as sheep for the slaughter," were fulfilled in a terrifying way. Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke at Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid."
Later, Benedict spoke about the Gypsies as well. "They were seen as part of the refuse of world history, by an ideology which valued only the empirically useful."
And of course, he spoke of the Poles. "First and foremost, they wanted to eliminate the cultural elite, thus erasing the Polish people as an autonomous historical subject and reducing it, to the extent that it continued to exist, to slavery."
That is exactly what the Poles wanted to hear: words from the German pope that would break the link to those who committed the crime and return them to the role of victim. L.H., a 75-year-old musician, told Haaretz, "the Germans used our land, and since that time, the West has maliciously eternalized Polish guilt. I hope that the pope will rectify this in his address."
As if it were not enough for a German pope to visit an extermination camp on Polish soil, even the weather was symbolic, with a strong wind and rain through which the sun shone occasionally ? and the moment the prayers began, in various languages and of various faiths, a rainbow appeared. He ended with the words of Psalm 23, "the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."
"It is very important that he did come here, that he spoke openly about the overall responsibility of the Germans, without making do with the word 'Nazi,'" the head of the Polish Jewish community, Piotr Kadlcik, told Haaretz.
However, he added, "he spoke courageously about the past, but he did not speak of the present."