Visiting German Synagogue, Pope Vows to Ease Tensions

Times Staff Writer

As Hebrew prayers for the dead filled the air, German-born Pope Benedict XVI made a historic visit Friday to a synagogue once destroyed by Nazis, decried rising anti-Semitism and vowed to ease tensions between Jews and Christians.

The sight of a German pope standing before Germany’s oldest Jewish community -- some of them Holocaust survivors -- was a moment of breathtaking symbolism. It was only the second known time that a Roman Catholic pontiff entered a Jewish house of worship.

“We need to show respect, and love, for one another,” the pope said.

Benedict, who as a teen in Bavaria joined the Hitler Youth movement and later deserted from the German army at the end of World War II, received a standing ovation from several hundred Jews who filled the synagogue under tight security.


Yet his presence was not without controversy: A leader of the Cologne Jewish community stood before the pope and called on him to open the Vatican’s secret archives from the World War II era, a long-standing sore point with many Jews who think the documents could shed light on the Vatican’s response to the Holocaust. Benedict did not reply.

Still, the pope’s pledge to continue the interfaith dialogue initiated by his predecessor, John Paul II, won praise from Jews the world over.

On his first foreign pilgrimage since his election this spring, Benedict is in Cologne to preside over World Youth Day, a weeklong festival that has brought hundreds of thousands of young Catholics from nearly 200 countries to this city on the Rhine.

Lamenting the “insane, racist ideology, born of neo-paganism” that gave rise to the Holocaust, Benedict said the Roman Catholic Church had a special duty to teach the young about such painful history “so that never again will the forces of evil come to power.”


“It is a particularly important task since today, sadly, we are witnessing the rise of new signs of anti-Semitism and various forms of a general hostility towards foreigners,” he said. “How can we fail to see in this a reason for concern and vigilance?”

The synagogue, a pale brick building with blue stained-glass windows on a leafy residential street, was destroyed by the Nazis during Kristallnacht riots in 1938 and rebuilt in 1959. The Jewish community of Cologne is said to be the oldest in Europe north of the Alps, tracing its roots to the Roman period. It numbered 20,000 before World War II, a mostly upper-middle-class community that saw 11,000 members killed in concentration camps. Today there are about 5,000 Jews in Cologne.

Benedict’s visit Friday was replete with emotion and imagery.

The mournful tones of a shofar, or ram’s horn, sounded as he entered. The pontiff paused to pray before a memorial to the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, then listened as a rabbi intoned the kaddish, a prayer for the dead. An all-woman choir greeted him with refrains of “peace be with you” in Hebrew.


“It was an electric moment when he walked in,” said Deidre Berger, who works for the American Jewish Committee in Berlin and was present in the congregation.

Priests in the pope’s delegation donned royal-blue kippot, the Jewish skullcaps. Sitting between two giant menorahs, Benedict listened intently and with a solemn face as synagogue official Abraham Lehrer called on the Vatican to open the archives.

“You grew up in Germany during a terrible time,” Lehrer told Benedict. “We not only see in you the head of the Catholic Church but also a German who is aware of his historical responsibility.”

Jewish groups want unfettered access to the archives to explore the role of Pope Pius XII and the Vatican during the war. Some say Pius failed to speak out against the Nazi slaughter; his supporters contend he was working behind the scenes to aid Jews. A portion of the archives has been opened to the public, but not all of it.


Lehrer’s 82-year-old mother, Fela, sat in the audience. She survived the Auschwitz concentration camp, where her parents and four siblings perished. She still bears identification numbers that the Nazis stamped onto her forearm. Rabbi Netanel Teitelbaum pointed her out to the pope.

Teitelbaum, who led most of the service, extended what he called the Jewish hand of friendship to the pope. Benedict rose and warmly gripped the rabbi’s hand with both of his.

In his own remarks, read to an audience so silent that only the clicks of photographers’ cameras could be heard, Benedict called the Nazi years the darkest chapter of German and European history, when an “unspeakable and previously unimaginable crime” stalked the land. But he made no mention of his own experience.

Benedict pledged to continue building on the foundation laid by John Paul, who made important strides in repairing relations between Judaism and Catholicism. John Paul made the first papal visit to a synagogue in 1986 in Rome and established diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel in 1993.


“I wish to reaffirm that I intend to continue on the path toward improved relations and friendship with the Jewish people,” he said. “Much progress has been made.... Yet much still remains to be done. We must come to know one another much more and much better.

“I would encourage sincere and trustful dialogue between Jews and Christians, for only in this way will it be possible to arrive at a shared interpretation of disputed historical questions.... This dialogue, if it is to be sincere, must not gloss over or underestimate the existing differences; in those areas in which, due to our profound convictions in faith, we diverge, and indeed precisely in those areas, we need to show respect, and love, for one another.”

Jewish leaders and others praised the pope for making the highly symbolic visit so early in his papacy. Some said they wished he had gone further in accepting responsibility for what they see as the church’s acquiescence in the Holocaust, called the Shoah in Hebrew.

Rabbi David Rosen, international director of inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, praised Benedict for “keeping the memory of the Shoah alive” as an educational tool for younger generations and for committing himself to the pursuit of dialogue between Jews and Christians.


“He has made clear the incompatibility of being a good Christian and harboring hostile attitudes and sentiments towards Jews and Judaism,” Rosen said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.

“This will send a very strong signal,” said Paul Spiegel, the top Jewish community official in Germany who attended Friday’s ceremony.

“Will we respect each other more now? Will we love each other? Words alone are not enough. But we were waiting for a gesture, and this was an important gesture.”

Lehrer, the synagogue official, said in an interview later that although the opening of the archives remained a crucial unresolved issue, he was satisfied that the pope and Jews were off to a good start.


“Maybe he could have said more and done more,” Lehrer said, “but it was a very important sign that he came.”

“Some members were slightly disappointed that he didn’t speak more about the role of the church during the Holocaust,” said Berger, of the American Jewish Committee. “But the important thing is there is a feeling now we don’t have to worry about things going backwards.”

Only in the last half a century have the church and Jews worked to reconcile their profound differences. The Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s removed some of the more anti-Semitic language from church documents and repudiated the notion of Jews as “Christ-killers.” The 1965 document Nostra Aetate formally deplored “feelings of hatred and persecutions” against Jews.

German Cardinal Karl Lehmann was asked in a news conference later whether Benedict, by citing “neo-paganism,” was avoiding acknowledging that the church had failed to forcefully speak out during the Holocaust.


Lehmann insisted that church leaders, especially in Germany, were not trying to evade their responsibility.

“There are certain elements of anti-Semitism in Christianity. Why didn’t Christians protest more [against the Holocaust]? I’m not trying to make excuses,” he said, recalling his own wartime childhood, when people in his village “disappeared.”

“You can never say, ‘This is finished, it’s over.’ As Christians we must always have what happened in the back of our minds,” the cardinal said. “Everyone in this country has a certain liability.”

Benedict’s appearance at the Cologne synagogue apparently calmed a dispute between the Vatican and Israel that emerged after the pope failed to mention attacks in Israel when condemning terrorist bombings after blasts in London last month.


The Israeli ambassador to Germany, Shimon Stein, had a front-row seat in the synagogue Friday, and applause was loud when he rose to greet the pope.