Rabbi: Pope’s silence at Auschwitz gave voice to victims

By Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko
Sunday, August 7, 2016

On the eve of Shabbat, July 29, Pope Francis went to Auschwitz. Auschwitz was the third stage in the German destruction of the Jewish people of Europe.

The first stage began on June 22, 1941, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on a line running from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. They were followed by mobile killing units, Einsatzgruppe. In this first phase the murderers came to the murdered and killed the Jewish people where they lived, in the sight of their neighbors and friends, and with the help of many local collaborators.

The largest such mass urban murder site was Babi Yar on the outskirts of Kiev, at which on Sept. 28 and 29, coinciding with Yom Kippur, 33,700 Jews were shot to death at the edge of a ravine, into which they fell and in which their bodies remained, until the Germans seeking to hide the evidence dug them up and burned them, heaping indignity upon indignity. Nearly 2 million Jews were murdered in this first phase.

When the Germans realized how messy it was to shoot and murder so many people in plain view of so many others, leaving the evidence of the murders behind, they met on Jan. 20, 1942, at the chalet on Gross am Wansee. There they developed the plans for the systematic and organized destruction of the rest of European Jewry. From that meeting came the second phase in the murder of the Jewish people, the Operation Reinhard Camps — Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.

In this second phase the murdered were brought to the murderers, who killed them in these three secret camps hidden away in Polish forests. The German placement of the death camps in Poland was a crime against Poland. This phase began in spring 1942, and culminated in early winter of 1943. Approximately 1.8 million Jews were murdered.

The third and final stage of the destruction of European Jewry was Auschwitz, the mass-killing-center phase. Auschwitz became the burial ground of Hungarian and Romanian Jewry.

In March of 1944 the Germans looked southeast. They saw that hundreds of thousands of Jews were still living in Hungary and Romania. To their dismay, Europe was not Judenrein, cleansed of its Jews. So the boxcars began to roll into Auschwitz with their sacred human cargo by the tens of thousands. It was these boxcars that brought Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz as a teenager. It is this, the mass-killing-center phase, of Hungarian and Romanian Jewry that he chronicles in his legendary book, “Night.”

It is important to make sure that Auschwitz not become a metonym, a substitute name or symbol, for the Holocaust, for the destruction of the 6 million Jews of Europe. By the time the Germans began murdering the 1.5 million Jews of Auschwitz, nearly 4.5 million Jews had already been murdered, most of them with the help of Soviet citizens and in territories under the control of the Soviet Union.

It is to Auschwitz, the site of the third phase in the destruction of European Jewry that Pope Francis came. He was the third pope to visit Auschwitz.

The first pope to visit Auschwitz was John Paul II in 1979. He paused at the Hebrew language memorial plaque, to the memory of the Jewish victims of Auschwitz, and he said, “In particular I pause with you, dear participants in this encounter, before the inscription in Hebrew. This inscription awakens the memory of the people whose sons and daughters were intended for total extermination. This people draws its origin from Abraham, our father in faith. … The very people that received from God the commandment ‘Thou shalt not murder,’ itself experienced in a special measure what is meant by murder. It is not permissible for anyone to pass by this inscription with indifference.”

With these words John Paul II identified the victims, the Jewish people. As Elie Wiesel said, in the Holocaust not all victims were Jewish, but all Jews were victims.

The next pope to come to Auschwitz was Benedict XVI in 2006. He bore witness when he declared that the genocide of the Jewish people was not just a genocide, it was a deicide. It was an attempt to murder God by murdering the chosen people of God in whose midst God resides to this day. With these words Benedict identified and taught the nature of the sin. These were remarkable testimonials. These were visits that taught the Catholic Church and humanity great lessons.

The visit of Pope Francis builds upon the teachings of these two remarkable popes. What did Francis add? He took a great lesson from a mysterious incident in Leviticus 10. On the day the Tabernacle was dedicated by Moses and Aaron, two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, were consumed by the fire in the Tabernacle.

What was Aaron’s reaction to this tragedy? Scripture records it, “and Aaron was silent.” To be silent is to allow the victims to bear their own witness. To be silent is to give voice to the victim. To be silent is to be crushed by the weight of what was done in this place, Auschwitz. The place speaks for itself. This man, Francis, came to Auschwitz in silence. He stood and sat in Auschwitz in silence and solitude.

Though many traveled with him, his witness at Auschwitz was in solitude. He sought to become one with those whose voices were silenced, with those whose voices still come to us from beyond the storm. In his solitude and silence Francis did not permit his voice to fill the vacuum created by the murder of 6 million Jews.

His silence allowed the Jewish victims murdered in Auschwitz and Europe to speak for themselves. In so doing, Francis established Holocaust remembrance as an indispensable component of Catholic religious consciousness.

Mark well the pattern of these three papal witnesses. John Paul II identified the victim, singled out for particular measure of evil, the Jewish people. Benedict named and taught the nature of the sin. The Holocaust was not just genocide. It was deicide, an attempt to “murder” the God of Israel, if one dare speak thus. The first papal visit identified the victim. The second papal visit defined the sin. The third papal visit taught the remembrance.


  • pope francis
  • holocaust
  • judaism
  • poland

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