As a result, the Holocaust can seem too big to learn any particular lesson from. As a metaphor, it trivializes anything it is used to describe—or, worse, it gets trivialized itself. “Holocaust on Your Plate,” proclaims the pro-animal group PETA, juxtaposing pictures of the Nazi death camps with photos of modern farming. “The Jewish Holocaust Was Then, The Palestinian Holocaust Is Now,” explains the Arab Al-Jazeerah.In this week's newsletter, Italian Vaticanista Sandro Magister picks up on one phrase in Benedict's speech at Auschwitz, calling it startling, and an interpretation that "no pope had ever made before him."
It’s as though nearly everyone wants to use the Holocaust for something: to advance some modern political purpose or thicken some contemporary moral claim. The temptation is almost overwhelming—and understandably so, for Auschwitz truly is a lesson, and it seems to demand that we apply that lesson, here and now. It seems to demand that we change our lives, here and now.
In itself, that ought to be a warning. The examples are endless: A few decades ago, the anti-Western Soviets declared that the Nazi death camps demonstrated Communism’s superiority to the bourgeois West; a few years ago, a popular anti-Christian historian wrote a book claiming that the Holocaust proved that organized Christianity must dissolve itself. If the Holocaust merely confirms you in the stands you already have, then you haven’t learned the lesson of the Holocaust.
Pope Benedict XVI visited Auschwitz on Saturday, and many of the initial news reports concentrated on his cry, “Where was God in those days? Why was he silent? How could he permit this endless slaughter, this triumph of evil?” In some ways, that revealed the inability of the press to grasp the heart of the pope’s speech “not to join in hate but to join in love.” But, in other ways, the press reports were exactly right, for Benedict has just given one of the great pontifical speeches—and he did it by refusing to use the Holocaust for any purpose except itself.
By annihilating that people – Benedict XVI asserted – the architects of the slaughter “wanted to kill God.” The God of Abraham, and of Jesus Christ. The God of the Jews and of the Christians, but also of all humanity, for whose sake “on Sinai he laid down principles to serve as a guide, principles that are eternally valid.” By destroying Israel, the authors of this extermination “ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.”As always, Pope Benedict is profound, and deeply thought-provoking. To interpret the Holocaust as an indirect attack on Christianity is bold, and can easily be misconstrued. But the truth that he is highlighting is a deep one, one that really needs to take root in the minds of Christians (and is, perhaps, one of the surest guards against anti-Semitism). It goes back to the New Testament itself; a reality that St. Paul evokes as he wrestles with the whole question of Israel's unbelief in those celebrated passages in his letter to the Romans. The reality that Israel and the Church, the olive tree and the wild branch, are so closely tied together, so intimately bound up, that the fate and destiny of one, so to speak, cannot be separated from that of the other. For the Jewish people we (Christians) might be an annoying heresy, or, a frightening oppressor, or a majority to be dismissed, or to be wary of. For Christians however, Judaism is not something that is extrinsic to us, something that is foreign, another religion, even. We cannot understand ourselves without Israel.
This is the key passage of the address given by Benedict XVI on Sunday, May 28, at Auschwitz and Birkenau.
It is to these words, and not his silences, that the most attention and reflection, including critical reflection, should be dedicated.
But the address delivered by Benedict XVI at Auschwitz and Birkenau contained other passages that are innovative with respect to the canons of political correctness.
For example, pope Ratzinger did not evoke the solidarity of Jews and Christians in terms of the latter asking forgiveness from the former, but as sharing the lot of the victims, as sharing the will to resist evil, as being brought close together through prayer. In doing this, the pope was not afraid to touch upon controversial questions. Among the “lights shining in a dark night,” he recalled the Hebrew Christian Edith Stein, who was also killed in the Holocaust but is disliked by many Jews because she converted and was beatified. He expressed admiration for the Carmelite convent built near Auschwitz, which is criticized by many Jews as an undue appropriation of the place’s memory.
[And while the likes of Radio Mariya crop up in the West, and extremist holocaust deniers and neo-Nazio ideologues are certainly not unknown, it is perhaps wise to recall that the locus of vociferous, officially backed and widespread anti-Semitism now seems to lie in the Muslim world. Just think of the various Saudi manuals that export extremist Wahabism. Or that most eminent of Holocaust deniers -- the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran.]