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ISRAEL: Pope meets Holocaust survivors

May 11, 2009 | 12:04 pm

Pope

They stood on different sides of Yad Vashem's Hall of Remembrance. Six Jews and a friend standing shoulder to shoulder on one side; on the other, a German man. None are young. Between them is a black floor, and on it names. Buchenwald. Jasenovac. Sobibor. Auschwitz. Maunthausen.

Their faces looked strong, their features clear, eyes were dry. That seemed to change later. Here and there, a closer look revealed a discreet hearing aid, a walking cane.

A few minutes later, Pope Benedict XVI crossed the stone floor to meet six holocaust survivors -- each representing an unfathomable million -- and one righteous gentile too. He shook their hands, lingered a short while with each as they were introduced. As their names and stories were read aloud, the survivors exchanged barely audible words with the visitor.

The pope did not visit the museum section of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. Some cited scheduling. Others believe it was to avoid confronting the critical depiction of Pius XII within. But the Hall of Remembrance is humbling enough.

The survivors who accepted the invitation to attend (others declined) hailed from Greece, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia. Some owe their life to ingenuity, cunning, stubbornness. Others, like Ed Mosberg, owe theirs to luck. When the American forces neared Mauthausen, where he worked in the infamous stone quarry, the German guards gathered the prisoners in a cave and tried to blow them up. The explosive didn't ignite.

Perhaps the choice of survivors offered a discrete gesture; three of the six had been saved by Christians, two of which had been later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations, like the Mother Superior of a convent orphanage in Poland who concealed the 3-year-old Dan Landsberg when the Germans came looking for Jewish children.

When first invited, Ruth Bondi hesitated. After hearing the pope's first speech upon his arrival, Bondi was hopeful that the sides would draw nearer. "Not to me personally, but to Israel and the Jews." Bondi, a writer and translator who survived Tereisenstadt and dedicated her life in Israel to documenting the Holocaust, did not expect the pope to ask for forgiveness. That's a bit much. But she would have welcomed recognition that the Catholic church "prepared the ground in which Nazi racism grew ... I would like for there to be awareness of this in the church."

Gita Kalderon was born in what is now Macedonia. Before the meeting, the 83-year-old survivor said she would shake the pope's hand. "I will feel very bad inside. But on the outside, I will show nothing. I will take a deep breath and do it right. I don't forgive -- I cannot. But I must look forward."

Ivan Vranetic was also among those who met the pope. As a youth in Yugoslavia, Vranetic had risked his own life repeatedly to save many Jews. One of them was Arna, who corresponded with him for 20 years until he came to Israel and wed her. In 1970, he was honored as Righteous Among the Nations.

"May the names of these victims never perish. May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten," said Benedict.

Every dignitary visiting Israel visits Yad Vashem. Most go willingly, a minority begrudgingly -- but everyone goes. What they say in public is a diplomatic rite of passage into Israel and its collective psyche. What they take with them from the visit is personal.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Full coverage: Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Photo credit: Marco Longari / AFP/Getty Images

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