Thane Rosenbaum in Huffington Post: A Tale of Two Holocaust TravelersThane Rosenbaum in The Huffington Post, May 15, 2009
This week, a German Pope, Benedict XVI, who, as a young man, served in both the Hitler Youth and in Hitler's army, visited Israel and paid his respects at Yad Vashem's Hall of Remembrance.
Also, this week, a Ukrainian, John Demjanjuk, a former concentration camp guard, was deported to Germany to stand trial as an accessory to the murder of 29,000 Jews in Sobibor. Demjanjuk forfeited his American citizenship after having raised a family in Ohio and working for many years as an autoworker.
In his remarks at Yad Vashem, the pope, curiously if not cynically, failed to mention that Germany and the Nazis were the perpetrators of the greatest crime of the 20th century. He spoke generally, as if the Holocaust was in no way connected to anyone or any nation he knew in particular. Ironically, despite the pope's tactical omission, had the German people not descended into a state of such barbarism, there would never have been a need for Yad Vashem nor, for that matter, any other Holocaust museum or memorial around the world. In addition to his silence about Germans and Nazis, the pope expressed no words of acknowledgment or regret about his own personal involvement, albeit tangentially, in the crimes of his people.
Throughout his denaturalization and deportation proceeding, which began back in 1977 when he was accused of being an even more lethal death camp guard, Ivan the Terrible, Demjanjuk asserted self-serving denials and remained completely unrepentant. In 1988 he was extradited and sentenced to death in Israel, but his conviction was overturned when new evidence suggested that he was not Ivan the Terrible but some lesser murderous cog in the Nazi death machine. Demjanjuk still expressed no remorse, shame or responsibility.
Four months ago the pope revoked his excommunication of a bishop who had denied the severity and scope of the Holocaust, later claiming that he had been unaware of the bishop's pernicious and vulgar views. Clearly the pope was more interested in reconciling with schismatic bishops than with survivors of the Holocaust. This experience deepened the expectation that he would speak meaningfully, and pointedly, while at Yad Vashem. Instead, Israel welcomed a pontiff in desperate need of some papal sensitivity training.
Demjanjuk is a frail 89 year-old man suffering from bone-marrow and kidney disease. A special medically equipped airplane was chartered to take him to Germany. His son, John Demjanjuk, Jr., repeating the family line if not his father's wartime line of work, accused the United State Justice Department's Office of Special Investigation, along with German prosecutors, of hounding his father. Both the United States Supreme Court, and a Berlin court, declined to hear Demjanjuk's appeal to prevent his deportation.
As a young man the pope, then known as Joseph Ratzinger, joined the Hitler Youth while a student in a Catholic seminary in Bavaria. He later served in an antiaircraft unit of the German army.
As a young man Demjanjuk served as a soldier in the Soviet army until captured by the Germans in the Crimea in 1942. From there he went to an SS camp in Trawniki, Poland, where foreign nationals were trained to participate in the killing of Jews.
Surely the German pope with a creepy Nazi past, and the Ukrainian death camp guard, are not fellow travelers, but neither are they strange bedfellows either. While one was a murderous criminal, the other was either ideologically promiscuous or a politically astute Catholic teenager. They took divergent paths during the Holocaust, played separate parts, and ended up leading different lives in its aftermath, but they nonetheless share a past that was defined by moral failure: morally responsible for the crimes of the Nazis even if, in the case of the future pope, he was legally not guilty of any actual crime.
But it is not merely severe youthful indiscretions that they share. There is also the convenient senior citizen's silence, and the fuzzy denials as to their own wartime conduct. Ironically, Benedict XVI is entrusted with the role as the world's most moral voice. The pope, with all of his theological training and the wisdom that comes with advanced age, should know better; Demjanjuk, a common man, can always falsely assert the innocence of ignorance.
Like Pius XII, who witnessed the Holocaust from the Vatican with casual indifference, Benedict XVI, while he was at Yad Vashem, missed an opportunity, if not altogether failed in his obligation, to say more -- much more. The world's highest moral authority had a duty to speak the necessary words, and undertake the essential gestures of acknowledgment, repentance and, yes, even personal responsibility.
Demjanjuk has been pleading the decrepit, avuncular old man defense for years, as if there is a de facto statute of limitations on mass murder for men in their eighth decade suffering from congenital diseases. I wonder how uneasy the ghosts of the Holocaust would rest if they thought that punishment and judgment would never come to their killers once they reached a point of poor health.
The pope, however, is still relatively robust, and he possesses the most influential pulpit of any man of God. Perhaps he should demonstrate how the world's most exalted Catholic teaches moral lessons, seeks salvation and his own personal redemption.