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Pope Visits Israel Amid Resentment Over Vatican's Response to Holocaust


One of the most difficult issues between the Vatican and Israel is the allegation by many Jews that Pope Pius XII - now up for beatification - did not do enough to prevent the Nazis from killing millions of Jews during World War II. The Holy See says the matter is not on the agenda during this visit to Israel by Pope Benedict XVI. The pope visits Israel's Yad Vashem holocaust memorial on Monday where he is to pay tribute to the victims. The Vatican's response to the Holocaust is on the minds of many during the pontiff's visit.

Painful reminders still exist

Rabbi Yisrael Lau, 72, sits in his Tel Aviv office, flipping through the pages of a book. He comes across the black and white photo of a blond, curly-haired toddler.

"The only picture we found before the war, my picture as a baby of one-year-old," the rabbi said. "We found it by an aunt, my father's sister. My father sent it to her when I was one year old. And this is the only picture I have until the age of eight [after] my liberation from Buchenwald."

It is the only reminder he has of his life before the Nazi invaders sent him and all of his family aboard cattle cars to the death camps, where both of his parents were murdered. He has told this story countless times, yet his eyes still well up with tears when he remembers seeing his mother for the last time.

"My mother was on the same train with us. We came to Czenstochov, a labor camp, my brother and myself, all the men," the rabbi said. "And [where] the women and the children went, we didn't know. After the war, I discovered that she passed away of torture, diseases, and starvation in the last days of the war, in a concentration camp in Germany, Ravensbruck."

Lau is now the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv.

Non-Jew saved Rabbi's life

He remembers it was a non-Jew who saved his life at the Buchenwald concentration camp.

"A Russian officer from the city of Rostov, was a prisoner of war, [by the name of] Fyodor. He adopted me," Rabbi Lau explained. "He stole potatoes to cook for me a soup every day. He made a cover of wool for my ears. He made it not for himself. A non-Jewish soldier, Fyodor, he made it for a Jewish child. He knew I'm Jewish."

But like many Jews in Israel, he harbors resentment against non-Jews at large, accusing European Christians, and especially the Roman Catholic Church, of sitting idly as millions were slaughtered.

Holocaust museum reflects resentment still harbored by some

That resentment is reflected at Israel's Yad Vashem holocaust memorial museum, where recorded presentations tell more than a million people who visit the museum each year about atrocities committed by the Nazis against Jews.

One exhibit has been the subject of much controversy. It discusses some Jews' view of the Vatican's role in the Holocaust. A caption on a plaque says the Pope at the time, Pius XII, did not protest the atrocities either verbally or in writing, implying the Vatican did nothing to help Jews.

Vatican: Pope Pius worked quietly to help Jews

The Holy See counters the claim, saying Pius - with his own Church under threat - worked quietly but courageously to help Jews.

Testimonies by some Holocaust survivors say the Pope's actions - like ordering that fleeing Jews be hidden at monasteries, convents, and properties of the Holy See - including Vatican City itself and the Pope's summer residence at Castel Gandolfo confirm Vatican aid.

A 1943 U.S. intelligence memo said "the Vatican has apparently for a long time been assisting many Jews to escape."

News reports at the time say the Pope made a number of calls for the Nazis to stop their persecution of Jews.

After the war, a number of prominent Jews, including future Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and physicist Albert Einstein, expressed their gratitude to the Pope and the Holy See for their efforts to help Jews.

Historians say a 1963 fictional play called the "The Deputy," by little-known German author Rolf Hochhuth, began to change this perception by portraying Pius XII as a cold-blooded collaborator of the Axis powers.

Many Jews unaware about changes in Catholic teachings

Today, many people in Israel - including Rabbi Lau - are unaware of the evidence in favor of Pius XII. Others are also not aware of the changes the Catholic Church has made in its teachings since the Holocaust, known in Hebrew as the "Sho'ah."

Father David Neuhaus at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem is a Jesuit priest of Jewish heritage who also lost relatives in the Holocaust. He is a scholar on Jewish-Catholic relations.

"I think that possibly the most important step forward has been the ability of the Catholic Church to look at itself critically, to engage in a process of reevaluation and realize that after the Sho-ah, which of course was not caused by Catholics, but perhaps could not have taken place if there had not been such a widespread teaching of contempt for Jews amongst Christians. After the terrible discovery of what the Sho'ah had in fact been, there was a real awakening," he said.

Some feel church's actions are not enough

The church has pronounced anti-semitism a sin, stopped the old teaching that Jews killed Christ, and taken other conciliatory measures.

The visit to Jerusalem in 2000 by Pope John Paul II went a long way to repairing bad feelings. Pope John Paul condemned the persecution of Jews by Christians wherever and whenever it has taken place.

Many Jews, however, believe the actions - while helpful - are not enough to quell their anger and grief. Some within the Catholic church, like Father David Neuhaus, believe there is not much more that can be done to fix the past.

"For many Jews, the fact that the Holy Father and the bishops did not leave their churches to join the Jews there, where they were, in the camps, being slaughtered, being burnt, only that would have been enough," Father Neuhaus said.

Too painful to forget

As Rabbi Lau sees it, nothing on Earth can ever repair the damage. He is asked whether he harbors resentment toward the Christians of Poland today.

"I can only one sentence add to our talk: I will never forget and I am not authorized to forgive," he said.

For him, and for many others who remember the Holocaust, the memory is too fresh and the pain too great, to close the chapter.

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