Benedict at Auschwitz: Unanswered Questions

The two weeks that have elapsed since Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Auschwitz have not yet provided an answer to the question that interests the Jewish world.

The two weeks that have elapsed since Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Auschwitz have not yet provided an answer to the question that interests the Jewish world: Do his statements during the visit to Poland and upon his return to Rome indicate the continuation of the path of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, or do they hint at a withdrawal from it? Will the way lead to a continuation of the reconciliation, at the end of which there will be significant changes in relations between Judaism and Christianity, or will it return to the trajectory that began 2,000 years ago, one of the offshoots of which led to the town the German name of which is cursed for all eternity?

Much has been written about the "incidents," the "misunderstandings" and the "over-sensitivity" of the visit. Why did the Pope's cavalcade not stop at the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, even though some of the fighters who survived it were waiting there to greet the guest? Why did Benedict not make explicit statements in condemnation of anti-Semitism, which has become an urgent problem in Poland precisely among the most conservative Catholic circles?

Benedict's question at Auschwitz, "Why was God silent in face of the crematoria and the gas chambers?" is annoying Jews, who are still asking why Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church were silent in those days. The question of God's silence has seeped into every believing soul: Is God an official who can be away from his desk when millions are being murdered on his shift? Did God not care about the murder of millions of children, or is he perhaps not omnipotent, and Adolf Hitler overcame his will? Not only Jews have been asking these questions since the "final solution." It is doubtful that Benedict and the two billion Catholic faithful understood the dimensions of the ticking bomb in the fact of asking the question, which could undermine the Christian religion and the other monotheistic religions. In effect, Benedict has asked: Does God indeed exist?

Perhaps the visit to Auschwitz came too soon, before Cardinal Ratzinger had time to adjust the world of his thoughts and his experiences to the character of Pope Benedict. It is difficult for every human being - believer or heretic, Christian, Jew or Muslim - to imagine what goes through the soul of a person who is deeply devout when he is suddenly transformed from the servant of the Creator to his representative on earth. It is better, perhaps, to give a man of flesh and blood a grace period of amazement before drawing conclusions from his grappling with an abyss like Auschwitz.

However, judging by the responses during the past two weeks by Christians and Jews (the latter, wisely, have been cautious in their statements), the questions that are being asked are very difficult: Did Benedict want to say that God's silence releases man from the rules of morality and decency? Or that perhaps during that period He retreated before the embodiment of evil?

After all, the interpretation of the explanation Benedict gave at Auschwitz is that the Nazis' control of the German people in effect released the individual from responsibility for the most terrible deeds: Only Hitler and his gangs are to be blamed for the Holocaust, only a few Khmer Rouge madmen were responsible for the genocide in Cambodia, only Slobodan Milosevic murdered tens of thousands of Croats and Bosnians, only the rulers of Sudan brought about the holocaust in Darfur, and who in fact is to blame for the genocide in Rwanda? And if God was silent in all these places, who is going to prevent the next holocaust in Africa, Asia or perhaps Europe? This is a sure - and convenient - recipe for evading a search for the factors in Christian-European culture that gave rise to the murderous hatred of the "other."

The last person who needs to raise questions of this sort is the "German Pope." He is entitled, less than a pope from any other nation, to create an opening for removing the responsibility from the shoulders of "Hitler's willing hangmen." This, precisely because after the war, the German people, more than all the other peoples who participated in the horrors of the Holocaust, came forward for the most part and took the responsibility upon itself. The beginning of the 21st century is certainly not the right time to stop this process and revoke the precedent.

The encounter with the Holocaust has been Benedict XVI's first big test. After it, the other tests are already on the way, and he will have to sit on Saint Peter's throne and deal with them in the near future. First of all, he will have to make it clear that also in the eyes of the Church, God's absence or silence cannot be an excuse for the deeds or failings of his creatures. In addition, there is also the big test of dealing with the extremist and violent factions of Islam, who see extensive parts of the globe as their province and heritage. Will Benedict know how to stand up and enlist Europe in the defense of its soul and its values, however problematic they may be with regard to Jewish history? The Jews also have the right to ask whether he has the desire and the ability to continue in the path of his predecessor, who looked at the Holocaust from the victim's perspective and acted energetically to eradicate foci of anti-Semitism in his Church that provided the emotional infrastructure for the largest genocide in history.

Ever since the Holy See was established, the times when the occupants change have always been fateful for the Catholic Church and those who come in contact with it. Now it is the time of Benedict XVI. A number of the moves he will make in the near future are likely to indicate the direction he will take. Will he accelerate the process of the canonization of Pius XII, who was silent in the face of the Holocaust even as the Nazi trucks collected the Jews of Rome under his window? Or perhaps he will push this issue behind the coming generations' curtains of oblivion?

A less important and easier si gn will be whether the Pope orders a stop to the anti-Semitic broadcasts of radio Maria (the Catholic Church's station in Poland), as many Jews and non-Jews expected he would do during his visit to Warsaw. And above all, will he forget or repeat his call to the Jews, in March of this year, "to allow themselves to be reunited in a new covenant, full and perfect accomplishment of the old (Testament)?" For this is a purified formulation of a demand in the name of which Jews were persecuted, murdered and burned almost from the moment Christianity had the power to do so. It is possible that there are positive interpretations of this call that the new Pope will explain in the very near future.