Pope Benedict to Hear Prayers in Hebrew at Auschwitz

KRAKOW - Once again Auschwitz will resound with the Kaddish and El Maleh Rahamim prayers. But this time, when it seems like every version such an occasion can summon up has been experienced, history will be granted a new stage for the great drama: the prayers, in Hebrew, will be said in the presence of the German pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, who is on a visit to Poland - past and present. At his request, the pope will walk alone through the gate bearing the sign "Arbeit Macht Frei," and deliver a speech he wrote himself.

The combination of the words "German pontiff" is not uniquely the focus of Jewish and Israeli discourse surrounding this visit. It is a loaded phrase for the Poles themselves. They, too, have a reckoning with history, and in this pope, who succeeded their Polish pope, they are seeking redress. Reports accompanying the visit and conversations with passersby frequently touch on the pope's origins. No visit to Poland by a pope of another origin would arouse the feelings suffusing this one. No visit by this pope to another country would be charged with so much emotion. Only the confluence of the three elements - a Catholic church leader, a German pope who was briefly a member of the Hitler Youth, and visiting Poland - yields such powerful feelings more than 60 years after the war. It is unlikely that 4,000 reporters from around the world would have come to cover a pontiff's visit elsewhere.

This is not a Jewish story. For the Poles, the visit to Auschwitz is a journey into their own suffering, to the Nazi occupation and erection of concentration camps on their soil. Some Polish commentators and clergy have defined today's visit to Auschwitz by Benedict XVI as even more important than the visit by John Paul II in 1979.

"John Paul came there out of a victim's affinity; Benedict XVI is the son of the people that started the aggression, even if he did not choose to be born there," says Archbishop Stanislav Gadecki.

In a poll by the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, Benedict's tour of Wadowiche, his predecessor's birthplace, and the visit to Auschwitz (in that order) are the two most important events of the four-day trip. A breakdown of the poll numbers shows those more liberal and less devout viewing the Auschwitz visit as the high point of the trip.

Beyond this, everyone is hoping for something else from the pope's visit: The Polish premier, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, said at a press conference in Krakow yesterday that "the pope's German origin is meaningless," but added that he hoped the visit would have positive ramifications for Polish-German relations.

The conservatives and nationalists, currently in office, are seeking to bolster their standing within the European Community.

The liberal branch of the Polish church wants an indirect condemnation of the church's nationalist and anti-Semitic wing for meddling in politics through Radio Maria broadcasts. The Polish church as a whole hopes the pope has the answer to the crisis surrounding new revelations about clergy collaborating with the secret services under Communism.

The Polish people are mainly looking for their beloved John Paul, and finding a new Holy Father, who is making a supreme effort to please them by constantly mentioning his predecessor and by delivering long speeches in Polish. He is meeting with a polite response, even affection, but his visit is not accompanied by the sense of euphoria that attended his predecessor's visits.

The Jews mainly want to hear him condemn anti-Semitism, a gesture of particular importance at a time when the strengthening of Polish nationalism is threatening human rights. They also hope the pope will speak at Auschwitz about the uniqueness of the Jewish tragedy. Poles who were prisoners in the camp have expressed concern that they will be overshadowed by the monopoly the Jews are claiming for themselves. In any event, everyone will be represented among the "witnesses" scheduled to meet with the pope.