Alexander Smoltczyk: German Silence in Auschwitz

Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz during his trip to Poland attracted worldwide attention. While some Holocaust survivors were satisfied with the German pontiff's address, other members of the Jewish community missed a mention of anti-Semitism....

"Words fail in this place. Only a devastated silence can stand here -- a silence that is a necessary cry to God: Why were you silent?" That's how he begins his address. Standing in front of the stone with a German inscription, he thinks of Edith Stein, whom his predecessor John Paul II beatified, "a Jew and a German, who disappeared in the horror of the night of German Nazi concentration camps, along with her sister" and who "belongs to the witnesses of the truth and goodness that hadn't perished in our people."...

The word "guilt" is never used. There is no "mea culpa," neither with regard to anti-Semitism in the Church, nor with regard to the role of his country. The Germans, he says - and the remark will probably be associated with him for a long time to come - the Germans are a people "that a gang of criminals managed to achieve power over with deceitful promises, with the promise of greatness, of the resurrection of the nation's honor and significance, with the promise of well-being and also with terror and intimidation, such that our people could be used and abused as an instrument for their fury of destruction and domination." He is standing here as Benedict XVI, not as Joseph Ratzinger, born in the Bavarian town of Marktl am Inn. He has to cite the past and move beyond it at the same time.

Instead of speaking about guilt, Benedict XVI speaks about metaphysics. The destruction of the people of Israel is essentially the will to destroy God, he says: "By eradicating this people, those purveyors of violence wanted, deep down, to kill the God who had called upon Abraham, who had spoken on Mount Sinai and established the still valid principles of humanity there." And he continues: "Ultimately, the destruction of Israel was intended as an unearthing of the foundation upon which Christian faith rests, and as its replacement by a new, artificial faith in the rule of man, the rule of the strong."

But not a word about anti-Semitism, neither yesterday's nor today's. "The place at which we stand is a place of memory and a place of the Shoah." The word "Shoah" was missing in the original draft of the speech, which was already distributed in the morning. Benedict had spent a great deal of time working on this speech, but he had refused to let the manuscript be read one of his cardinals. As a result, the "Shoah" was only slipped into the German Pope's Auschwitz speech at the last minute.

In his speech, Ratzinger avoids equating Auschwitz with other totalitarianisms. In the very first sentence he speaks about "this place of horror, an accumulation of crimes against God and man without parallel in history." He does mention "new catastrophes" that threaten: the "abuse of God for justifying blind violence against innocents," apparently a reference to Islamic fundamentalist terror, and, "on the other hand, the cynicism that doesn't know God and mocks faith in him."

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