Holy candles burned from a menorah in the heart of the Vatican on Thursday. Six candles. One for every 1 million Jews claimed by the Holocaust.
Pope John Paul II watched the candles. He sat on a tall, white-covered armchair flanked on one side by Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, the president of Italy, and on the other by Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi of Rome.
They had come to the great audience hall next to St. Peter’s, and 7,500 spectators with them--Romans, diplomats, cardinals, concentration camp survivors--for an extraordinary concert marking the anniversary of the Shoah, Hebrew for Holocaust.
When the music ended, John Paul rose to talk about the candles.
“The candles lit by some of the survivors symbolically show that this hall is without limits; it contains all the victims, fathers, mothers, children and friends. In this commemoration, all are present. They are with you. They are with us,” he told the hushed, somberly dressed crowd in the hall where he gives his weekly general audience.
As a young factory hand in his native Poland during World War II, Karol Wojtyla witnessed the Nazi persecution of Jews. It marked him.
The candles, he told concentration camp survivors at a preconcert meeting Thursday, “keep before us the long history of anti-Semitism, which culminated in the Shoah. But it is not enough that we remember, for in our day, regrettably, there are many new manifestations of the anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racial hatred which were the seeds of those unspeakable crimes. Humanity cannot permit all that to happen again.”
It was the first time that the Vatican officially commemorated the Holocaust.
The carefully measured performance of London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Gilbert Levine, an American Jew, came in the context of perhaps the best relations in history between Catholics and Jews.
“This is a marvelous event in Catholic-Jewish relations, but also as a fact of history, that the Vatican commemorates the Holocaust. We need facts of history to tell future generations about these events and that they were not a figment of anybody’s imagination,” said Levine in an interview before the performance.
In 1979, a year after his election, John Paul prayed at the infamous Auschwitz death camp in Poland. In 1986, he became the first Pope to visit the synagogue in Rome, where a Jewish community has lived since before the birth of Christ. Last December, he personally oversaw final negotiations to inaugurate diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the state of Israel.
“This is fitting continuation of what I call one of the greatest success stories of the 20th Century--the building of Catholic-Jewish relations. What an extraordinary journey to reach this point. There was never a commemoration like this,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, inter-religious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee who helped plan the concert.
Each of the six candles was lit by a Holocaust survivor, one of them by Levine’s mother-in-law, Margit Raab Kalina, originally of Czechoslovakia and now of New York. She survived Auschwitz.
Referring to the survivors in remarks after the concert, John Paul said: “Their presence strengthens our common commitment. The evocative melodies which we have listened to echo the anguished plea to the Lord, the expression of hope in him who hearkens to those who seek him, to welcome and console them. I wish to invite all of you to observe a moment of silence, in order to praise the Lord with words which he will suggest to our hearts, and to hear once more the plea, ‘Do not forget us.’ ”
There has never been a papal critic of anti-Semitism and racism as outspoken as John Paul.
“The Pope saw the Holocaust, not from any high official level, but on the ground in Poland. It was etched into him,” Rudin said.
In his early 20s, the future Pope worked first as a laborer in a stone quarry near Krakow, then as a boiler cleaner in a chemical plant during the Nazi torment of Jews.
“We have seen with our own eyes, we were there, and we were witnesses to the violence and the hatred which too often ignites in the world and rapidly inflames it. We have seen, and we see peace derided, brotherhood betrayed, harmony neglected and pity despised,” John Paul told the concert audience.
The program opened with cellist Lynn Harrell and the orchestra playing “Kol Nidrei” by composer Max Bruch, a work based on the central prayer of the service for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Then came the contemplative third movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Baritone Howard Nevison and the Choir of St. Peter’s Basilica followed with a version of the 92nd Psalm written by Franz Shubert, a Catholic, for the inauguration of the Vienna synagogue in 1826.
Actor Richard Dreyfuss, who will host transmission of the concert on U.S. public television later this year, narrated the Jewish prayer for the dead from Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish symphony. The performance climaxed with Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” also in Hebrew.