Pilgrimage Abets Fight Against Anti-Semitism

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pope John Paul II, who lived through the Holocaust in neighboring Poland, made a somber pilgrimage Monday to Babi Yar, the ravine in this capital where the Nazis began their systematic slaughter of Europe's Jews during World War II.

With his right hand on his cane, left hand trembling and head bent in meditation, the Roman Catholic leader stood for two minutes of silence before reciting in Latin a psalm for the dead that begins: "Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Hear my prayer."

Then he turned to Kiev's chief rabbi, standing at his side, and said, "God bless you."

The brief papal visit, commemorating as many as 200,000 Ukrainian Jews and other prisoners executed by Nazi occupation forces from 1941 to 1943, solidified John Paul's legacy as a crusader against anti-Semitism. He was the first pope to enter a synagogue, and Jews around the world have welcomed his prayers at Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland, and at Israel's memorial to the more than 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust.

Babi Yar is equally significant to Jews, "a name that still inspires awe and disgust," Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich said in a written message he gave the pope Monday.

It was here in September 1941 that at least 33,761 Jews were herded into a fenced area, stripped of their clothing and shot to death in the 72 hours before Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Their bodies tumbled into the ravine, where they were buried.

The mass grave swelled over the next two years. Near the war's end, the Nazis ordered the bodies to be exhumed and burned, but they failed to sweep away the evidence.

John Paul spoke of the atrocities Sunday at a government-sponsored interfaith meeting.

"May the memory of this episode of murderous frenzy be a salutary warning to all," he said.

Monday's ceremony took place before an imposing concrete and bronze sculpture of twisted and tormented figures, about a mile from the massacre site. The Soviet government waited more than 30 years after the war to build the memorial, which does not mention that most of the victims were Jewish. Markers describe the victims as Kiev residents and war prisoners.

It was after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which sought to repress Jewish identity, that Kiev's surviving Jewish community managed to erect a 10-foot-high menorah in front of the ravine.

Bleich said Monday that he would have preferred that the pope visit the Jewish memorial, but Ukraine's government, the pope's official host, preferred the other site.

"Still, the fact that he has come means a lot to Jews worldwide," said Bleich, 36, who was born in Brooklyn. "Thanks to the great efforts of Pope John Paul II, there is hope that there will be no more Babi Yars."

The rabbi was the only Jew invited to stand with the pope at the monument. He presented the pontiff with two books: a history of Babi Yar and a collection of essays about Ukrainian Jews, who now number half a million.

Toward the end of the war, some Catholics in Ukraine and Poland took Jewish children into their homes to save them from the Holocaust. Many of the children, whose natural parents did not survive, were raised as Catholics, and Bleich said thousands of such survivors, now in their 60s, are ignorant of their origins.

During Sunday's interfaith meeting, the rabbi urged the pope to make it easier for people to look through Catholic baptismal records in Eastern Europe to learn about their past. Neither the pope nor the Vatican responded to the idea.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°