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Religion Column for the Week of May 17-23: Remembering the Names

May 13, 2009

"Religion Today" is contributed by the University of Wyoming's Religious Studies Program to examine and to promote discussion of religious issues.

By Paul V.M. Flesher

During his visit to the Holy Land last week, Pope Benedict XVI worked diligently to show balance and understanding to both the Muslims and the Jews who live there. Benedict visited a Muslim nation, Jordan, and a Jewish one, Israel, as well as the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel; he prayed at both Muslim and Jewish holy sites and sacred buildings; he spoke alongside both Israeli and Palestinian political leaders, and supported both Palestinian desires for a nation of their own and Israeli desires for security.

But the Pope's speech at Yad Va-Shem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial, became a significant misstep in Israeli eyes. Israeli media and politicians criticized him for saying that the six million Jews systematically eliminated by the Nazis were "killed" rather than "murdered," making it sound as if their deaths were accidental.

The speech focused on the victims' fate and did not mention the perpetrators -- no comments about Nazis, war-time Germany, or death camps. The Pope thus acknowledged no wrongdoing by the perpetrators of the Holocaust, and offered no apology.

Vatican officials were mystified by the Israeli reaction, which became clear in the fumbling responses they offered to deflect criticism. They thought the Pope had delivered an excellent speech at the Holocaust memorial.

Yad Va-Shem functions as a cemetery for the Jews the Nazis exterminated, few of whom received a proper burial. In Hebrew, "shem" means "name" and the memorial records in stone the names of the six million Jews, preserving each one, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, as "an everlasting name which shall not be cut off."

Pope Benedict understood his visit as a pastoral act. Like a priest accompanying a dead person's family to the graveside, he offered support and empathy: "They lost their lives, but they will never lose their names; they are indelibly etched in the hearts of their loved ones."

Importantly, against people who say the Holocaust never happened, he added, "May [the victims'] suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten!" He also aligned the Catholic Church itself with the Jewish vow of "never again," by saying "I reaffirm... that the Church is committed to praying and working tirelessly to ensure that hatred will never reign in the hearts of men again."

The Pope devoted half his speech to the importance of remembering names and the people who bore them. He even linked Yad Va-Shem to the divine memory by observing that the victims' names "are forever fixed in the memory of Almighty God."

But pastoral moments at the graveside are for the deceased's close family. When the family addressed is the nation, it is not a time for intimacy and comfort. For Jews worldwide, the Holocaust holds the status of sacred history.

Just as the political and military stories of David, Solomon, Hezekiah and Josiah became Holy Scripture, so too the political murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust is now viewed as part of the Jews' walk with God as the Chosen People. For the State of Israel, it has become its reason for survival, for Israel is the phoenix which rose from the ashes of the Holocaust.

The religiously important time of the Holocaust has become symbolized in the place of Yad Va-Shem. To visit that memorial and not understand one's own position in relationship to the Holocaust, is to miss the sacred character of the Holocaust and its memorial.

Popes are men of two names, the name they were born with and the name they take when they become pope. The first represents their identity as individuals, the second their identity as the leader of Catholicism. When the previous Pope, John Paul II, visited Yad Va-Shem in 2000, he brought both his names. As Pope, he spoke of the Holocaust's terribleness and uttered words of contrition and repentance. But as Karol Wojtyla, who grew up in Poland, he met with Jews from his own village, and several Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors took part in his visit's ceremony.

In the view of Israelis, Pope Benedict visited Yad Va-Shem only as the Pope. He did not come as Joseph Ratzinger, who grew up in Hitler's Germany, and who managed only imperfectly to avoid implication and involvement in that Nazi society. Benedict forgot his own name, not understanding that walking into Yad Va-Shem he walked out of a Catholic world into space defined by Judaism and which symbolizes the atrocities committed by the Germany of Ratzinger's youth. He may have arrived at Yad Va-Shem's gate as Pope Benedict, but he lost that identity when he entered. Not realizing that change, he failed to speak as himself. The important message to Israel was never uttered.

Flesher is director of UW's Religious Studies Program. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the Web at To comment on this column, visit


Posted on Wednesday, May 13, 2009

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