The Story That Won’t Go Away

Yesterday’s New York Times probably had more of substance about the Shoah on its front page than all the issues combined from the years of 1939-1945.

One article featured a follow-up on last week’s most unfortunate goings-on at the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI had trampled on Jewish sensitivities (and, I’m glad to say, a great many non-Jewish sensitivities as well) when he revoked the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson. Williamson, one of four bishops who had been excommunicated by Pope John Paul II, all of them members of a schismatic, far-right sect on the fringe of the Catholic Church, had distinguished himself by questioning the historicity of the Holocaust, recently and publicly. The Pope claimed to be issuing his revocation in the name of healing a rift within the Church, but people of good will- of all faiths- had wondered at what cost.

The article stated that the Pope had insisted that Bishop Williamson recant what he had said, if he wished to be taken back into the good graces of the Church. As of this morning, as reported in the Washington Post, the bishop had apologized for the “distress” he had caused the Church and the Holy Father, but he did not take back anything he had said about the gas chambers (he claims they didn’t exist), or the number of Jews who were murdered (he claims 300,000, not six million).

I wonder if Pope Benedict can feel the intensity of the glare of millions of Jewish eyes focused on him- eyes of both the living and the dead. It’s his move; what will this German pope do?

And then, in a related story, the Times reported on the definitive ending of one of the hottest Nazi war criminal pursuits since Mengele- that of Dr. Aribert Heim, a heinously sadistic Nazi “doctor” who had performed “surgery” without anesthesia on Jews in a variety of concentration camps. Sadly but not surprisingly, he had been living a fairly comfortable life in Cairo, where he had “converted to Islam” and become a favorite of local children.

It is one of the great conundrums of modern Jewish life that as badly as we need to find a rationale for living Jewishly that is not rooted in the Shoah, (i.e., because they did this to us we shall persevere), we just can’t escape its tentacles. Nor should we, in these particular instances.

It is all well and good to claim- rightly- that a healthy Jewish identity must be predicated on the joy of living as a Jew, and not historical anger. But then you come across a news cycle like this one, and you just have to wonder when and how we will ever get to that point. Or if we can. Or if we should…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.