JERUSALEM – Pope Benedict XVI confronted the dark history of his native Germany on the first day of his visit to Israel on Monday, shaking the hands of six Holocaust survivors and saying victims of the genocide “lost their lives but they will never lose their names.”
Benedict’s attempts to ease tensions with Jews after his recent decision to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop appeared to enjoy only partial success. The top two officials at Yad Veshem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, faulted the pope for not apologizing nor using the words “murder” or “Nazis” during a speech at the site.
Nor did the pope make any discernible progress in resolving long-standing differences between the Vatican and Israel over whether the wartime pontiff, Pius XII, did enough to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Still, the pope has seldom been as emotional as he was Monday when he laid a wreath and rekindled the “eternal flame” at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
His voice and hands quivering, the 82-year-old pontiff spoke eloquently of those who perished.
“I can only imagine the joyful expectation of their parents as they anxiously awaited the birth of their children. What name shall we give this child? What is to become of him or her? Who could have imagined that they would be condemned to such a deplorable fate? As we stand here in silence, their cry still echoes in our hearts,” he said.
Benedict received an extraordinarily warm welcome replete with red carpets, a choir, children waving flags and red carnations, and a new strain of wheat named after Benedict that was presented to him by Israel’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning president, Shimon Peres.
“In you we see a promoter of peace, a great spiritual leader,” said Peres, who also gave Benedict a 300,000-word Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible inscribed on a tiny silicon particle, using nanotechnology.
Soothing tensions with Jews was clearly at the top of Benedict’s agenda. But a noteworthy comment upon his arrival at the airport calling for an independent Palestinian homeland alongside Israel had the potential to put him at odds with Israel’s new hard-line government.
Benedict said both Israelis and Palestinians should “live in peace in a homeland of their own within secure and internationally recognized borders.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood nearby as Benedict spoke those words, and Israeli officials later tried to play down the possibility of a rift, saying the purpose of the pope’s visit was not political. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the pope was voicing a long-standing position shared by the U.S. and European countries.