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Many Jews Resentful Over Vatican Response to Holocaust

One of the most difficult issues between the Vatican and Israel is the allegation by many Jews that Pope Pius XII did not do enough to prevent the Nazis from killing millions of Jews during World War II. Vatican officials say the matter is not on the agenda of Pope Benedict XVI's trip to Israel. But it is on the minds of many during the pontiff's visit.

For Rabbi Yisrael Lau, this photo of himself at the age of one is the only reminder of his life before the Nazis sent his family to the death camps.

He has told the story many times, but he still chokes up when he remembers seeing his mother for the last time at the age of seven.

"My mother was on the same train with us," said Rabbi Lau. "We came to Czenstochov, a labor camp, my brother and myself, all the men. 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. 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, Fyodor," he said. "He adopted me. He stole potatoes to cook for me a soup every day. He made a cover of wool for my ears."

But like many in Israel, he accuses non-Jews of sitting silently as millions were murdered.

That resentment is reflected here at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, where last year more than one million people came to learn about the atrocities committed against Jews during the Nazi occupation of Europe.

This exhibit expresses the belief of many Jews that the Pope at the time, Pius XII, was silent during the slaughter.

The Vatican 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 monasteries, convents, and Vatican properties to hide Jews - saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

But many people here are unaware of evidence in favor of Pius XII, and of the changes in teaching that the Catholic Church has made since the Holocaust, known in Hebrew as the "Sho'ah."

Father David Neuhaus is a Jesuit priest of Jewish heritage and 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," said Father Neuhaus.

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. The pope condemned Christian persecution of the Jews whereever and whenever it has taken place.

Many, however, believe the actions - while helpful - are not enough to quell their anger and grief.

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

As Rabbi Lau sees it, nothing can ever repair the damage.

"I will never forget, and I am not authorized to forgive," he said.

For him, and many others, the memory is still too fresh and the pain too great, to close the chapter just yet.