Pope’s WWII-era activities stir up controversy on Holy Land visit


Pope Benedict’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land veered Tuesday into controversy over his past when the Vatican, stung by Israeli criticism, denied and then acknowledged his membership in the Hitler Youth during World War II.

The conflicting accounts came in response to Israeli leaders who faulted the German-born pontiff for not mentioning, in an address Monday at the Holocaust Memorial, that he had witnessed Nazi terror as a conscript in the youth movement and the German army.

Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s chief spokesman, declared that the pope, growing up Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria, “never, never, never” belonged to the Hitler Youth. Later he backtracked, conceding what Ratzinger, then a Roman Catholic cardinal, told an interviewer for his 1997 biography and that his membership in the movement had been compulsory.


The confusion highlighted Vatican defensiveness over Benedict’s words at the Yad Vashem memorial, where the 82-year-old pontiff declared that Hitler’s extermination of Jews must “never be denied, belittled or forgotten” but did not use the words Nazi or German.

The Vatican’s bumbling response risked reopening a chapter of the pope’s life, discomforting to Israelis, that many had considered closed.

Benedict ignored the issue as he pressed ahead Tuesday with what he called a “journey of faith.” He was warmly welcomed as he traversed Jerusalem’s ancient, stony paths from Muslim and Jewish holy sites to an outdoor Mass for several thousand Catholic worshipers, urging followers of all three faiths to dwell on their common origin and overcome centuries of conflict.

But Israeli media were filled with criticism of what some called a banal and emotionless speech on the Holocaust. Commentators faulted him for avoiding questions of responsibility for the slaughter of 6 million Jews, of Christian anti-Semitism and indifference and of his own wartime experience.

“The pope spoke like a historian, as somebody observing from the sidelines, about things that shouldn’t happen,” Israeli Parliament Speaker Reuven Rivlin said on Israel Radio. “But what can you do? He was part of them. With all due respect to the Holy See, we cannot ignore the baggage he carries with him.”

The criticism prompted Lombardi to deny Benedict’s Hitler Youth membership. Later, in retracting the denial, he said he was trying to counter reports that Benedict was an enthusiastic Nazi.


“He enrolled involuntarily into the Hitler Youth, but he had no active participation,” Lombardi told reporters traveling with the pope.

In the 1997 biography, “Salt of the Earth,” Ratzinger said he was registered against his will in the Hitler Youth by his seminary and had no connection to the group after ending his religious studies. He was later conscripted into the German army, at age 16, for what he called “relatively harmless” infantry duty from August 1943 to September 1944.

According to historical evidence, he shared his family’s anti-Nazi views and never joined the Nazi party.

In theological writings as a cardinal, he acknowledged that hatred felt by many Christians for the Jews over the centuries had contributed to the Holocaust. Some Israelis said they expected him to reassert that position before Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem and to apologize on behalf of the Catholic church.

Lombardi said: “He does not have to repeat every time, in every speech, all the points he has made in the past about the tragedy of the Holocaust. . . . It is not possible.”

Some Jewish leaders came to Benedict’s defense. Yona Metzger, chief rabbi of Israel’s Ashkenazi Jews, said he was certain that Benedict subscribed to Pope John Paul II’s sweeping lament at Yad Vashem nine years ago for Christian acts of persecution against Jews. Others said Benedict’s presence at the memorial and his rejection of Holocaust denial mattered most.


Meeting with Metzger and other Jewish leaders Tuesday, Benedict said his church is “irrevocably committed . . . to a genuine and lasting reconciliation between Christians and Jews.” He did not address criticism of his Holocaust speech.

Instead, the white-robed pontiff brought a message of peace to Jerusalem’s Old City compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

The first two Jewish temples stood on the plateau, and the Western Wall remains as a sacred remnant. Above the wall is the Dome of the Rock, a shrine built on the spot where the prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven. Israelis and Palestinians stake rival claims to the compound, a focal point of their lengthy conflict.

In Muslim tradition, Benedict slipped off his shoes to enter the Dome of the Rock. At the Western Wall, he prayed briefly in silence and, following Jewish practice, tucked a written prayer into a crevice between its wide beige stones.

“God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” the prayer said, “hear the cry of the afflicted, the fearful, the bereft; send your peace upon this Holy Land, upon the Middle East, upon the entire human family.”

At the mosque and later, at the outdoor Mass in the Garden of Gethsemane, Benedict was confronted with Palestinian protests over Israel’s control of the Old City and other territory captured in the 1967 Middle East War.


Mohammed Hussein, the Palestinians’ senior Muslim cleric, handed him a letter stating that peace in the region “can only be achieved with the end of occupation” by Israel.

At Mass, the mostly Palestinian crowd cheered as Jerusalem’s Catholic patriarch, Fouad Twal, spoke of “the agony of the Palestinian people who dream of living in a free and independent state.” The Palestinian prelate also lamented the “agony of the Israeli people” whose “military might” had not brought them security.

In his homily, Benedict acknowledged “the pain and suffering which so many of you have endured . . . and the bitter experiences of displacement which so many of your families have known. There should be no place within these walls for narrowness, discrimination, violence and injustice.”