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Pope's Presence Awes Survivors of the Holocaust

History: At Yad Vashem memorial, audience sees his anguish for the sins committed against them and his solemn recognition of their state.

March 24, 2000|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Their faces were creased, their hair, what was left of it, gray. They gazed across a dark and drafty Hall of Remembrance and remembered a history of hate and death. In front of them sat Pope John Paul II, a man as old as they were, emotionally sharing their horror.

Shmuel Spector remembered. He thought of his childhood in a Polish town and how the Catholics ordered him to avert his eyes when the Corpus Christi parade honoring the Christian Eucharist passed by.

Now 75, Spector bore witness Thursday to the head of the Roman Catholic Church, seated at a shrine sacred to the Jews, delivering a remarkable message of sorrow.

"I have lived to see this," Spector said in hushed awe.

The pope had come to Yad Vashem, Israel's hallowed, haunting memorial to 6 million Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust, and there he offered his personal solidarity with survivors, some of whom were old neighbors from his Polish homeland.

"I remember my Jewish friends and neighbors--some of whom perished, while others survived," he said, expressing sorrow for their persecution at the hands of Christians "at any time and in any place."

Many of the elderly survivors, their hearing not what it used to be, could not fully make out the words uttered by the pope, his speaking skills not what they used to be.

But the weight of the moment transcended his words.

"No statement will help 6 million victims, no matter what the pope says," said Eli Zborowski, one of six survivors presented symbolically to John Paul to represent each million who were murdered. "But the fact alone that the pope asked to be at Yad Vashem and to make a statement at Yad Vashem only strengthens the position he's already taken. . . . This is a turning point."

Zborowski, who was born in Poland 75 years ago, escaped a Nazi death camp thanks to the help of two Polish Catholic families who hid him and his family in an attic and later in a chicken coop.

For many of the witnesses to Thursday's ceremony, including 13 people from the pope's hometown, Wadowice, the presence of John Paul was enough. They saw his anguish for the sins committed against them in the Holocaust and his solemn recognition of the state that rose from the ashes of that catastrophe.

"This is a culmination for him and a culmination for us Jews living in Israel, the Jewish state," said Spector, who escaped the Nazis by fleeing to the Soviet Union as war broke out in Poland.

"His coming here recognizes two millennia of sins against the Jews, and it recognizes that Jews today are living free as a nation among nations," said Yisrael Gutman, 77, who joined the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto as a 16-year-old. He was wounded in the uprising and survived internment and the death march to the Mauthausen concentration camp.

Like most of the Holocaust survivors who had warm exchanges Thursday with the pope, the white-haired Gutman came to what was then Palestine soon after the war and participated in the struggle to build a state.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak brought the cycle of destruction and renewal full circle.

"The establishment of the state of Israel against all odds," he said, the pope near his side, "is the definitive, permanent answer to Auschwitz."

The hourlong ceremony, during which the pope laid a wreath on a stone slab encasing the ashes of victims from six death camps, provided a poignant moment of remembrance for the prime minister.

His voice seeming to crack, he recalled that his Polish-born maternal grandparents had boarded death trains headed for Treblinka, where they had died.

"You, your holiness, were a young witness to the tragedy," Barak said. "You were there, and you remembered."

The service often was emotional for those in attendance, with many weeping or wiping tears. This was especially true when a cantor, Asher Heinowitz, sang a 17th century prayer for the souls of martyrs. Mourning all those, adults and children, whose blood was spilled, he repeated: "Revavot, revavot, revavot"--"Tens of thousands, tens of thousands, tens of thousands."

It is the cries that went unheard, or were heard but ignored, that leave the most bitter, troubling memory for Jews and many others, who blame the Catholic Church for fostering centuries of anti-Semitism and then failing to speak out as the Nazi extermination proceeded apace.

"The sun and the moon darkened and the stars withdrew their luster," Barak said, quoting the prophet Joel. "And the silence was not only from the heavens."

The pope did not address the church's complicity, blaming instead a "godless ideology" that sponsored such heartless inhumanity.

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