Pope Francis gave a short speech Monday during his visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust, addressing humanity as “Adam” and blaming it for descending to the murderous behavior that lead to the deaths of six million Jews.
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Rather than mentioning Jews – or Nazis, Germans, concentration camps or World War II – Francis took a more global and theological approach to the Holocaust. The speech began with the question “Adam, where are you?” a line from Genesis 3:9 in which God inquires into the first human beings’ whereabouts when it is clear that Adam and Eve have gone astray.
“Who convinced you that you were God? Not only did you torture and kill your brothers and sisters, but you sacrificed them to yourself, because you made yourself a god. Today, in this place, we hear once more the voice of God: Adam, where are you?” the pope posed in a speech he delivered in Italian.
“Here before the boundless tragedy of the Holocaust, That cry – 'Where are you?' – echoes like a faint voice in an unfathomable abyss,” he said. “A great evil has befallen us, such as never happened under the heavens. Now, Lord, hear our prayer, hear our plea, save us in your mercy. Save us from this horror.”
The pope continued: "Grant us the grace to be ashamed of what men have done, to be ashamed of this massive idolatry, of having despised and destroyed our own flesh which you formed from the earth, to which you gave life with your own breath of life. Never again, Lord, never again!"
Pope Francis, on his third and final day of his holy land tour, became the third pope to visit Yad Vashem, following the historic visits of Pope John Paul II in 2000 and Pope Benedict in 2009. Accompanied by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, and Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the former chief Ashkenazi rabbi and himself a Holocaust survivor, Pope Francis rekindled the eternal flame in the museum’s Hall of Remembrance and then laid a wreath with the help of two high school students, pausing reflectively for more than a minute. He bowed his head deeply, listening as a farewell letter was read aloud in Italian. The letter was from a young woman to her sister just days before her deportation from Romania. The woman, Ida Goldish, and her young son Vily died a few days later.
As part of the official ceremony, the pope greeted six Holocaust survivors, shaking their hands and listening to brief highlights of their stories. These included Moshe Ha-Elion, Avraham Harshalom, Chava Shik, Joseph Gottdenker, Eliezer Grynfeld and Sonia Tunik-Geron.
Afterwards, Ha-Elion, who spent 21 months in Auschwitz as well as having been in three other concentration camps, said the pope’s speech felt more like a prayer than an address.
“His focus was asking humanity, how did we deteriorate to such a situation? It was a general question for humanity, more than it focused only and specifically on the Holocaust. But I think his approach was appropriate,” said Ha-Elion, 89, who now lives in Bat Yam and is the president of Israel’s Greek Holocaust survivors organization. Ha-Elion, who came from Salonika, is the only one to survive from his entire family, and now has 10 grand and great-grandchildren.
Another survivor in the audience, Miriam Aviezer, said she wished the pope had seized the moment to say something about anti-Semitism, particularly given two developments in the last two days: a shooting at a Jewish museum in Brussels, in which four people died, an attack outside a Paris synagogue short aftewards and the startling success of the far-right National Front in European parliamentary elections.
“His words were emotional, but not very concrete,” said Aviezer, who came from Croatia and was hidden as a child during the Holocaust. “The pope has the power to influence Christians all over the world and he could have made a strong statement against anti-Semitism that would sway many people.”
Avner Shalev, the Chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate, said separately from the formal ceremony that he was very concerned about these developments. “Anti-Semitism is strengthening in Europe – there is no denying it,” he said. “Everything that we do here is focused of getting people to learn from what happened not long ago, so clearly we have to do more in terms of education.”
Shalev, who has overseen the visits of all three popes to Yad Vashem, said that
Pope Francis’ words were a testament not just to the Vatican’s recognition of the Holocaust, but this particular pope’s view of the Shoah as a break in humanity. He also noted that the pope had offered to open the Holy See’s archives from the period of World War II, which have thus far been closed, and said he believes the pope will stand by his word regardless of what might be found. Some critics say the Catholic Church did not do enough to oppose the Nazis’ plan, though there were many cases of individual churches, clergy members and average Christians who helped save Jews.
Shalev also said that pope’s invitation Sunday to President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to come to the Vatican for a prayer meeting was a “bold statement.” Many analysts have noted that the invitation is unusual and suggests a different path for this pope, perhaps hearkening back to a time when the Holy See played a much more prominent role in politics.
“Everyone knows that the peace process needs to advance somehow,” said Shalev. “So he asked them and they immediately responded. I think that’s the most political that it can be, and coming from him, I think there is a power in that invitation.”
Rabbi Arthur Schneier, an American rabbi accompanying the pope on the visit, said it was a remarkable moment in the history of the Israel-Vatican relations – which after all were only made official in 1993. Schneier, an Austria-born Holocaust survivor and the rabbi of the Park East Synagogue in New York, has been involved in trying to forge better relations between Jews and the Vatican since 1965.
During the visit to the Western Wall in the morning, he gave the pope a copy of the Jewish “traveler’s prayer” [tefilat haderech.] “Christians believe that St. Christopher protects you in your journey, and I explained that although we don’t have a saint for that, we do have this important prayer, and that it’s not just for this trip, because life is a journey,” Schneier told Haaretz.
Schneier noted that during the visit to the president’s house shortly after the visit to Yad Vashem, the pope did specifically mention anti-Semitism and racism.
“I think this trip is a very positive and constructive step in the relationship between the Catholic church and the Jewish people and also the Vatican’s respect for the state of Israel. That is a very significant and clear reaffirmation of something that began with Vatican II,” he said, referring to a 1965 decision of the Catholic Church to state that it does not view Jews to be responsible for Jesus’ death.
“He is the one to take it even further than his predecessors. In the history of mankind, we can’t look at it measured in days or weeks,” Schneier said. “For Israel, it’s 20 years after diplomatic relations. I think it will give further encouragement to other religious leaders who are either silent or are afraid of interfaith relations.”