I felt an obligation to go to Yad Vashem, to honor the memory of the dead and the Holy Father's call to prayerful repentance from Christian anti-Semitism.
Yes, yes, "I" never persecuted Jews, or even had an anti-Semitic thought as far as I recall (though I confess--mea maxima culpa--to harboring unkind thoughts about Barbra Streisand). But nothing has made me sadder and angrier this week than hearing my fellow Catholics, Palestinian Catholics I mean, scoff at the Holy Father's apology and teachings about Jewish-Christian relations.
I've been interviewing them, and to the last man and woman, they've insisted that if anything, the Jews owe them an apology.
"They are the Nazis today," one Palestinian Catholic told me.
"Excuse me, but I don't see any Bergen-Belsens on the West Bank," I replied.
"No, but they are killing us more slowly. They are more clever about it." She informed me that a Jewish conspiracy in the Western media was keeping this fact hidden.
Anyway, I went to Yad Vashem, and the trip left me with an intimate appreciation for John Paul's exhortations against anti-Semitism, and indeed of racism in all its forms. Yad Vashem makes explicit the reason for the pope's words. They are not meant to make us feel good. They are meant to prevent what Yad Vashem documents from happening again.
The walk-through exhibit is set up in chronological order. What happened in the death camps is fairly well known to the general public. We are--at least I was--much less aware of the specifics of what led up to the genocide. In light of John Paul's teaching, then, the earliest part of the exhibit is the most interesting. There you see evidence of the systematic and relentless dehumanization of the Jews. The anti-Semitic newspapers, cartoons and movies, the ritual humiliations, the propaganda taught to schoolchildren, all of which prepared the minds of the German people to accept Auschwitz.
The Poles didn't have this level of state propaganda, but as the exhibit makes clear, they were all too happy to see the Jews mistreated by the Nazi occupiers. Not all, of course (the Wojtylas, for example, stood up for Jews); but enough. The Catholic primate of Poland during the 1930s was a flagrant anti-Semite, and made Jew-baiting public pronouncements.
It was this experience and what it led to, as well as living under postwar communism, that made Karol Wojtyla an ardent foe not only of anti-Semitism, but of any way of thinking that stripped human beings of their dignity.
Ultimately, it led to the gas chamber, the gulag, and the killing fields.
When Wojtyla, in the twilight of his papacy and at the end of his life, appeared at Yad Vashem this week, he once again condemned anti-Semitism and all race hatred, and proclaimed the great hope of all faithful Christians and Jews: "Evil will not have the final word."
And he warned that when men choose to forget God, they lose sight of the image of God in the human beings He created.
This has been the central theme of his papacy. John Paul has tirelessly proclaimed a Christian humanism as a bulwark of those seemingly irresistible forces that would deny man--all men--the inalienable dignity granted by the Creator. Against the political ideologies of the first half of the 20th century, to the radical individualism and materialism dominating the last half, John Paul has stood prophetically, preaching the splendor of truth and the gospel of life.
And this elderly Pole, who has lived through the worst humanity has to offer, stood stooped and trembling in the light of Yad Vashem's eternal flame to bear witness one last time. It was not only one of the finest moments of his papacy; it was an epochal moment in the history of the Christian faith.
An emotional Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said, "Today will be remembered by history as a victory for truth." Yes. Yes.
As the pope's motorcade passed on a Jerusalem street, a British pilgrim and I, knowing where the pontiff had been that day, talked about John Paul's courage and humility in standing up for the Jews.
"He makes me proud to be Catholic," the Brit said.