Why Pope Francis Needed to Speak Out at Auschwitz

If the pope had spoken at the Nazi death camp last Friday, the world might have also heard about anti-Semitism stoked by his church in Poland.

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Pope Francis walks through the entrance of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, Oswiecim, Poland, 29 July, 2016.
Pope Francis walks through the entrance of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, Oswiecim, Poland, 29 July, 2016.Credit: Janek Skarzynski, AFP

During his visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp last week, Pope Francis chose to remain silent. Garbed in white, without words or speeches, he passed the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” gates and walked around the site engaged in silent prayer.

His decision to stay silent can be interpreted as recognizing the impossibility of adequately discussing the unthinkable events that took place there 70 years ago. But the choice of silence is also an elegant yet unfair way of avoiding the difficult questions the Catholic Church still faces and must answer.

Given the current atmosphere in Poland – where people from within the government and its agencies are trying to rewrite history according to their own ultranationalist vision – the right thing to do would have been to place these difficult questions on the table, rather than ignoring them.

It’s too bad that Francis kept his silence. If he’d spoken out while touring the very camp in which a million Jews were murdered – as well as 100,000 Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and others – perhaps the world would have heard about the hostile anti-Semitic legacy that was nurtured by the church in Poland for centuries, and which paved the way for the persecution and murder of Jews before, during and after the Holocaust.

It’s too bad Francis was silent. If he had spoken out, perhaps he would have told us, 75 years after the terrible massacre of Jedwabne’s Jews by their Polish neighbors, where the local priest was at the time. Or where the Kielce priest was during the horrific pogrom carried out against the town’s Jews several months after the war ended.

However, instead of speaking out, Francis chose to silently remember a controversial Polish priest – Friar Maximilian Kolbe, who was imprisoned in Auschwitz for helping Polish and Jewish refugees, and volunteered to go to his death in order to save the life of another Polish inmate.

The Catholic Church canonized him, turning him into a martyr nearly 35 years ago. It ignored the fact that he was actually an anti-Semite who believed in the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and that he justified the expulsion of Jews from Poland’s economy.

What message was Francis trying to send to the Catholic world through the respect he paid to Friar Kolbe? To the outsider, it looked like the pope was coming to Auschwitz as the representative of a persecuted religion, not a persecuting one that has yet to come to terms with its own contribution to the murder of the Jewish people during the Holocaust.

The silence chosen by Francis was particularly resounding in view of the silence of one of his predecessors, Pope Pius XII, who avoided condemning the murder of Jews by the Nazis while the Holocaust was occurring. Francis’ silence was also a reminder of the continuing reticence of the Vatican Archives with regard to this stain on the history of the Holy See, with documents referring to this period still hidden from the public.

Under Pope Francis, the Vatican has continued the trend of rapprochement with the Jewish people, with declarations of good relations, tolerance and mutual respect between the two religions. Those who followed his visit to Auschwitz could see his handshake with Poland’s chief rabbi and his meeting with Holocaust survivors.

However, these actions pale – at least visually – in comparison with the reverberating image of the man in white, sitting on a chair in the cell in which the anti-Semitic martyr Kolbe was held, and staying silent.

Pope Francis praying in the underground prison cell of a Catholic saint, Maximilian Kolbe, at the former Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz, July 29, 2016.Credit: L'Osservatore Romano/AP

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