A remembrance in silence: Pope Francis and Catholic responses to the Shoah

The Truth Between Us #3 – Here at The Truth blog series, Dr. Murray Watson and I strive to give our readers insight into the most pressing, important, and sometimes controversial issues affecting Christian-Jewish relations. There is no issue that has shaped – and continues to shape – that relationship as much as the Holocaust. The Catholic Church’s policies during the war, the connection between Nazi anti-Semitism and Christian anti-Semitism, the building of churches and convents in former concentration camps – these topics continue to test and strain the ongoing dialogue between Jews and Catholics.

These questions resurface every time a pope pays a visit to the site of one of the camps. In July, Pope Francis visited Auschwitz, as part of a visit to Poland for the Catholic “World Youth Days” celebrations. It was not the first time a Catholic Pope had visited Auschwitz; in June of 1979, the newly-elected Pope John Paul II (himself a Pole) visited the notorious death camp, and in May 2006, Pope Benedict XVI made the same “pilgrimage of memory.”

How was Pope Francis’s visit different? What was he trying to convey? How does his own past and background influence the Pope’s relationship to the Shoah? To explore these questions surrounding Pope Francis’s visit to Auschwitz, and Catholic commemoration of the Holocaust more broadly, we will be speaking with Father John Pawlikowski.

Fr. Pawlikowski is a Polish-American Catholic priest of the Servite religious order, and is a social ethicist who has spent much of his scholarly life reflecting on moral and spiritual questions raised by the Shoah, including serving since 1980 on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council (which guided the building of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum). As someone with a long history in Jewish-Christian dialogue, Fr. Pawlikowski knows that the Holocaust remains a topic of sensitivity and pain, especially as we watch the generation of survivors and eyewitnesses slowly vanishing.


Murray Watson: Two of the things that distinguished Pope Francis’s visit were: (1) The fact that he chose not to speak publicly while he was at Auschwitz, but to make his visit almost entirely in silence (except for his conversations with several survivors and Righteous Gentiles), and (2) the fact that (unlike his predecessors) he is not a European. Pope John Paul came as a Pole, Pope Benedict came in his own words, as “a son of the German people.” Both were eyewitnesses to the war and its atrocities. But Francis, as an Argentine, has no lived experience of the Shoah, and, thus, speaks from a certain distance from those events.
Should he have spoken out during this visit? Or do you think his actions, and his silence, might have been more eloquent than any words he could have spoken?

Pope Francis stands in silent prayer during a visit to the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in Poland (screen capture: YouTube)
Pope Francis stands in silent prayer during a visit to the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in Poland (screen capture: YouTube)

Fr. John Pawlikowski: Pope Francis’ decision to visit to Auschwitz in silence, I believe, added an important dimension to Christianity’s overall response. We cannot only respond in silence as the trust of the Museum in Washington has shown. But silence remains a necessary way of honoring the victims every bit as much as concrete activism against contemporary anti-Semitism and genocide.

Unfortunately Pope Francis left some ambiguity about his perspective on the Holocaust with what he wrote in the Auschwitz memorial guestbook. His plea for mercy on “your people” is not clear. Was he referring to Christians who collaborated in some ways or the Jewish People who were victimized by such collaboration? If the latter, then he should have added a word about Christian complicity in their suffering. And in asking for forgiveness he seemed oblivious to the strong Jewish belief that only the victims could forgive.

Watson: One of the ongoing areas of tension between Catholics and Jews lies in the fact that the Vatican Archives for most of the wartime years are still sealed to scholars, despite many promises that they would be opened soon. This has contributed to a sense that the Church still has “skeletons in the closet,” particularly around the very controversial papacy of Pope Pius XII (1939-58). Scholars have been calling for decades for these records to be made available. Do you expect those archives to be opened any time soon? And do you think that they are likely to contain materials that substantially alter how Pius XII is understood by historians, and especially by the Jewish community?

Pawlikowski: Pope Francis was different in a number of ways from his two predecessors who visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. John Paul II and Benedict XVI had both personally experienced the horror of the

Pope Pius XII (photo credit: The Vatican/ Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Pope Pius XII (photo credit: The Vatican/ Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Holocaust. Francis did not. So I believe his major contribution might well be finally to open all the relevant Vatican archives and remove the church that still stands in the visible vicinity of Birkenau and which, even if unintended, feeds into some Jewish concerns about an attempt by the church to “Christianize” the Holocaust. He has promised to do both but actions speak louder than words alone.

Let me add, however, that in terms of the archives I actually believe that more important information may be sitting in the vast store of documentation recovered from national archives, particularly from those of the German Democratic Republic and some key Latin American countries. While I
understand the complexity of organizing such documentation for effective usage by scholars, Pope Francis should give high priority to completing the cataloging of the Vatican material.

Watson: As a Polish-American, you are obviously aware that the Polish Catholic Church sometimes seems to be ambivalent about Catholic-Jewish relations, both praising dialogue with Jews, but also making public statements about the historical record and Catholic teachings that can seem like “retrenchment” or a more defensive posture. Has your Polish background affected your involvement in Holocaust remembrance?

Pawlikowski: When I was first proposed as an original member of the United Holocaust Memorial Council—which had been approved by a formal vote in the Congress—two realities immediately came my way. First of all, the late Elie Wiesel, who had been designated as the initial Chair of the Council by President Jimmy Carter, requested a detailed letter from me clarifying my views on the Holocaust.

It was obvious to me that he had some uncertainty whether a Catholic of Polish ancestry could have acceptable views on the nature of the Nazi effort to exterminate the Jews. After I had passed muster with Professor Wiesel, I immediately received a letter from an important Polish American organization questioning my ability to “represent” American Polonia on the Council.

Thus my introduction to the world of Holocaust discussion.

My response both to Professor Wiesel’s request and the letter from the Polish American organization was exactly the same. As a Catholic I remain profoundly concerned about what Pope John Paul II called “the sin of anti-Semitism” in Christianity and its impact on the implementation of Nazi plan for Jewish extermination. As a social ethicist I felt it was a Catholic moral imperative to rid society of this “shadow on the cross” as one film titled it. But I also felt a need to tell the story of the other victims of Nazi bio-racial ideology—especially the Poles, but also the disabled, the Roma and Sinti, and gay people.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (photo credit: AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 wikimedia Commons)
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (photo credit: AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 wikimedia Commons)
Because I hold to the view that bio-racism was the ultimate controlling force behind Nazism there is a certain linkage among these bio-racial victims even though the bio-racist attitude of the Nazis came down hardest on the Jews.

Lazar Berman: Certainly Christian attitudes toward Jews played a decisive role as well?

Pawlikowski: Let me make it clear that in the case of the Jews this official bio-racism was coupled in a powerful way with the long disastrous history of Christian contempt for Jews and Judaism. At the popular level Christian anti-Semitism was the decisive force that led many baptized Christians to outwardly support the Nazi effort or at least remain on the sidelines as silent bystanders.

Father John Pawlikowski, O.S.M
Father John Pawlikowski, O.S.M

Berman: Jews often get defensive when other groups, especially the Church, portray themselves as victims of the Nazis in ways comparable to Jews. In your experience, is there a current among Catholics to portray themselves as victims of the Nazis, a group that the Holocaust targeted? Is it appropriate for Jews to insist that others groups not compare their suffering under the Nazis to that of the Jews?

Pawlikowski: When work commenced on the construction of the Holocaust Museum in Washington I was appointed to serve on the committee responsible for creating the permanent exhibition. Early on in our discussion we were faced with a major challenge. One potential large donor insisted that he would provide funding only if the Museum restricted its story to Jewish victimization.

But while his donation was indeed tempting, Elie Wiesel (as Chair of the Council) and the leaders of the Holocaust survivor groups agreed that the Museum must also include exhibits on the other Nazi victims even though the primary focus was to be on the Nazi onslaught against the Jews. This approach has been the consistent policy of the Museum ever since. And subsequently the board of the Museum acted on the recommendation of Presidential Commission’s report to Jimmy Carter that had been inserted in the report through the dedicated efforts of the late Hyman Bookbinder of the American Jewish Committee that a committee be created within the Museum that would focus on contemporary cases of genocide.

This was very much in line with the motto that Elie Wiesel created for the Museum, “Remembering for the Future.” As a believing Christian, I am deeply committed to the Museum’s motto. We must continue to remember the victims of the Nazis, especially the Jews who were front and center in the massive attack on human dignity launched by Hitler and his cohorts. As Elie Wiesel once put it, “to forget these victims is to kill them a second time,” making mass murder so much easier.

Hence the Christian churches have a moral obligation to combat anti-Semitism whenever and wherever it still raises its ugly head. This is a commitment that the Vatican and the State of Israel jointly endorsed in the Preface to the Fundamental Agreement establishing formal diplomatic relations between them. But in light of the experience of the Holocaust Christians and Jews must together combat other forms of genocide and near-genocide that have arisen subsequent to Nazism and still continue to appear in various parts So the Christian churches must make remembrance of the Holocaust a central part of their sense of moral responsibility today.

Here is where the witness of religious leaders, Popes in particular, must continue to play an important role. John Paul II’s visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was groundbreaking and probably no subsequent visit can have the same impact. I was present for Pope Benedict’s visit to Birkenau where he delivered a meditation on the implications for religious belief in our time which had some rich aspects but was rather lost on those actually present since it was delivered in German. My concern about Pope Benedict XVI was that he over-universalized the Holocaust and tried to relate it to what he regarded as contemporary attacks by liberal forces in society against Catholicism in our time. I strongly believe that the integrity of the Holocaust must be protected. Not everything is Holocaust, no matter how morally outrageous the actions may be.

Berman: Why did you, as a Catholic, decide to devote your life to teaching the Holocaust, even though it may bring up problematic episodes and attitudes by the Catholic Church?

Pawlikowski: I want to emphasize how deeply ingrained the story of the Holocaust has become for me as a Christian and as a Professor of Social Ethics at Catholic Theological Union, I genuinely feel a moral obligation to pass this on to my students. I have to say that I have some optimism about that process. Whenever I teach my course on Ethics and Holocaust/Genocide, I have the students visit the Illinois Holocaust Museum and write a short reflection on their visit. Most of the students wind up spending far more time at this Museum, and their reflections have been consistently moving.

This is often true in a special way for my students from Asia and Africa who knew little or nothing about the Holocaust prior their visit.
For most, if not all, it has been transforming. One student, for example, returned to her home city of Mumbai, India, and organized a Holocaust conference for Catholic clergy there. In the spirit of the 1998 Vatican statement on the Holocaust, “We Remember,” Catholicism has an obligation to replicate such efforts through the increasingly globalized Catholic community.


Watson: Lazar, we stand today at a point 70+ years after the events of the Shoah, and within a decade, almost all of the living witnesses and survivors will have died. The memory of the Shoah imposes a serious burden of remembrance and action, and many people worry that, as the Holocaust gradually recedes into history, the imperative of remembering and acting will similarly fade, and it will simply become swallowed up in the generic category of “horrific things that happened in the past.”.

Where do you see hope and progress in terms of how Christians today reflect on the Shoah? And what kinds of concrete steps would you like to see in coming years and decades, to ensure that the memory—and the lessons—of the Shoah continue to guide our thinking about the present, and about the future? How can we Christians work hand-in-hand with the Jewish community, to permanently root the Holocaust in our moral consciousness, and then to respond more effectively to discrimination, anti-Semitism, and other forms of ethnic hatred and violence, which continue to mar our world? If you could speak to Pope Francis about this issue in particular, what would you want him to know, and to do?

Berman: There is no question that contemporary Christians approach the Holocaust with deep sorrow and gravity. In many places in the Christian world, the Holocaust is being taught and studied in a serious fashion, and churches are asking painful questions about their own past attitudes and teachings. They should be recognized and applauded for doing so.

However, I am worried by several trends. I see an attempt in contemporary discourse to treat the Holocaust as just one horrendous episode in a century characterized by murder and war. I also have noticed a pattern of people portraying the Jews as just another group victimized by the Nazis, who don’t see the Holocaust as directed at the Jews more than anyone else. Anyone who has read Hitler’s writing and speeches, or has studied Nazi policies, knows that the Jews were Hitler’s obsession, the great enemy of the civilized world in his eyes.
Many people are uncomfortable with the idea that the Holocaust was meant to destroy the Jewish people. That fact has implications on how seriously society should treat anti-Semitism, how the international community should react to threats against Jews, how vital Israel’s security is. Relativizing the event, or miscasting it as a horror that targeted a range of groups equally, allows them to avoid certain inconvenient lessons from the Holocaust.

While Christians – and the Pope- have touched many Jews with their heartfelt commemoration of the Holocaust, it sometimes seems many churches care more about dead Jews than living ones. The Holocaust has left scars in the Jewish consciousness, and they take threats against themselves very seriously. When Christians express sorrow over the Jews killed by the Nazis, then criticize Israel for defending those still alive, it seems to Jews that they have not learned the most important lessons of the Shoah. I would like to see the Catholic Church showing that it has learned how dangerous anti-Semitism is by leading the fight against Nazi-inspired depictions on Jews in the Arab world, which also leads to deadly violence against Jews.

When Pope Francis prayed at the security wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, he sent a problematic message to Israeli Jews. After speaking out against the murder of Jews 70 years ago, he seemed to be protesting against a security measure that has saved thousands of contemporary Jewish lives. The fact that he prayed under graffiti that comparing Bethlehem to the Warsaw Ghetto didn’t help.

In short, I’d like to see Christians showing that they understand how the Shoah has shaped the way Jews understand their own physical security, and that they will be the first to act to counter real threats against the Jewish people.

In “The Truth Between Us,” blog series at The Times of Israel, Dr. Murray Watson (see his introduction here) and I explore a wide range of issues surrounding Christianity, Jewish-Christian relations, and the Christian communities here in Israel. The goal is to reach greater knowledge and understanding about complex issues that lie where Christians and Jews meet.

About the Author
Lazar Berman, a former Times of Israel journalist, holds a Masters degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University. He has worked at the American Enterprise Institute, and served as a Chaplain-in-Residence at Georgetown. Lazar's writing has appeared in Commentary, the Journal of Strategic Studies, Mosaic, The American, and other outlets.
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