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Old Wounds Reopened When the Pope Saw Waldheim

September 06, 1987|Peter Loewenberg | Peter Loewenberg, a professor of history at UCLA, is author of "Decoding the Past " (Knopf)

In an attempt to quell growing international protest, Pope John Paul II and Vatican officials met with Jewish leaders last week in Italy, at the Pope's summer home. As the joint communique issued after the meeting put it, the Jewish delegation "expressed its dismay and concern over the moral problems raised" by the Pope's recent audience with Austria's President Kurt Waldheim.

Last week's meeting in Italy, and the Vatican's subsequent announcement that it would issue a document on the Nazi Holocaust and other manifestations of anti-Semitism, were efforts to placate Jewish leaders. The Vatican is anxious to prevent angry demonstrations about Waldheim during the Pope's 10-day U.S. visit. But on Thursday, three Los Angeles Jewish leaders said they would not take part in a Sept. 16 interfaith ceremony with the Pope, citing his meeting with Waldheim as a major reason.

Obviously, the issue of the Pope's audience with Waldheim will not go away. Jewish leaders continue to complain that they view the papal audience as a key to restoring Waldheim to a significant place in the international community, despite his World War II record of service with a German army unit implicated in the deportation of Jews and other war crimes.

Postwar Austria is proud of its achievement of a nonaligned position between East and West. As a neutral state, Austria seeks to function as a center for international agencies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency. Vienna serves as a transit point for Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union. This role as the nonaligned land-in-the-middle has been unintentionally jeopardized by the election of Waldheim, whose past is filled with controversy and whose presence stirs the West's strongest feelings stemming from the Nazi era.

The papal invitation granted legitimacy at a time when Waldheim was desperate for it. He had solicited invitations and been turned down by the governments of Ireland, Finland, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Waldheim must have thought the furor over his war record would pass. Instead, his--and Austria's--international isolation increased. The only countries willing to receive him were part of the Soviet bloc and the Arab world. Then Waldheim's papal audience broke the pattern of previous rejection; he had a meeting with Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany and invitations to visit Latin American countries, such as Guatemala, have been issued.

While the Pope appears to have opened other doors for Waldheim, he himself experienced the German occupation of Poland, especially brutal compared to Western Europe. The young man who was to become John Paul II studied for the priesthood in an underground seminary, his name on a Nazi black list.

As the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years, John Paul II has been exceptionally ecumenical in his relations with other religions and in his diplomacy. He established the first diplomatic relations with the Scandinavian states and Great Britain since the Reformation. He has both met with Yasser Arafat and made the first Papal visit to Rome's synagogue. He carried on the tradition of Pope John XXIII of denouncing anti-Semitism in the liturgy and in society.

The highest moral authority for 800 million Catholics worldwide and 52 million in the United States, this Pope, in an earlier attempt to assuage Jews after his Waldheim meeting, addressed them as "our elder brothers in the faith of Abraham" and stated:

"We Christians approach with immense respect the terrifying experience of the extermination, the Shoah , suffered by the Jews during the second world war, and we seek to grasp its most authentic, specific and universal meaning."

American Jewish leadership is not monolithic; many spokespersons reacted positively to the Pope's declaration. Early refusals to meet with the Pope on his U.S. tour were reversed and meetings were scheduled for Miami on Sept. 11 and Los Angeles on Sept. 16. Now controversy about the meetings has again risen.

If John Paul II wished to assert moral leadership in the world, why did he choose to exercise it in the direction of salvaging Waldheim's respectability? Perhaps the answer is that the Vatican is, and has always been, as governed by concerns of Realpolitik as of morality.

The Austrian foreign ministry recently distributed a "White Book," "prepared as a rebuttal of the allegations against Waldheim." It is an apologia in which his personal involvement is referred to in a passive voice and a distancing third person mode as: "The second entry records the passing to the same German division of an order emanating from the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht regarding the treatment of partisans captured in battle." In short, Waldheim now officially concedes that he knew and was instrumental in transmitting the infamous "capture-and-shoot" order.

Waldheim had earlier claimed to have been a law student in Vienna from 1942 through 1945; instead he was in the Balkans for 30 months, a Wehrmacht intelligence officer.

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