JERUSALEM – Pope Benedict XVI visited Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem Monday, laying a wreath and speaking words of Scripture in what many hoped would be a historic move towards mending Jewish-Christian relations.
The pope's visit bears particular significance both because of some of his controversial decisions since becoming pope in 2005, and also because of his personal history: he is a German national who was compelled to join the Hitler Youth at age 14, and was later drafted into an anti-aircraft unit.
"The Catholic Church feels deep compassion for the victims remembered here," Pope Benedict said. "As we stand here in silence, their cry still echoes in our hearts. It is a cry raised against every act of injustice and violence."
The pope seemed visibly moved during the ceremony at the Holocaust memorial, where he rekindled the "eternal flame" and laid a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance, which bears the names of many of the concentration camps where Jews died during World War II.
But he did not visit the museum's permanent exhibit, avoiding finer points of contention between the Jewish state and the Vatican. In the museum, a caption under a photo of Pius XII – the pope during World War II – says that his papacy was silent as Nazis rounded up Jews across Europe and sent them to their deaths. But Benedict has called Pius as a "great churchman" and the Vatican says he quietly worked diplomatic channels to try to save Jews. A movement inside the church has been seeking Pius' beatification for the past 25 years.
The pope has also come under fire for lifting the excommunication order for a bishop who denied the Holocaust occurred.
"May the names of these victims never perish. May their suffering never be belittled, forgotten or denied," the pope said, adding, "They lost their lives, but they will never lose their names." The reference to names was fitting because the Yad Vashem memorial takes its name from a line in the book of Isaiah, which the pope quoted: "And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name [a "yad vashem"] ... that shall not be cut off."
The pope also met with six Holocaust survivors, people his own age, and shook hands with each of them as the grim details of their survival was shared with the audience.
Some Israelis listening closely, however, expressed dismay that he spoke in general, almost global, terms and avoided specifics. Israel's Channel One television reported that the museum directorate was "disappointed." Several Israeli commentators said that his words paled in comparison to the visit of Pope John Paul II to the memorial in 2000.
Immediately following the visit, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council and a former chief rabbi, said he found many things lacking in Benedict XVI's speech.
"For me, personally, there was something missing here," Rabbi Lau said in an interview on Israel's Channel One. He pointed out, for example, that the pope said that millions were "killed" as opposed to "murdered," indicating less culpability.
"There was an absence here of some words: it hurts me, it saddens me, not to speak of I apologize: apology was definitely not present here," said Lau, himself a Holocaust survivor. "But there was attention, and I honor that, an emphasis not to deny the Holocaust and not to belittle it and not to forget the issue."