Assessing Benedict XVI's Visit to Auschwitz
Interview With Father Jean Stern
ROME, JUNE 8, 2006 (Zenit) - Benedict XVI's visit to Auschwitz is a continuation of John Paul II's teachings on the particular relationship between God and the Jews, says a priest whose parents died in that camp.
In this interview, held May 28, Father Jean Stern, a Jewish-born French missionary of Our Lady of LaSalette, shared with us his reflections on Benedict XVI's historic visit to Auschwitz during his trip to Poland.
Q: No doubt you followed closely Benedict XVI's visit to Auschwitz. What did you find especially significant about this visit?
Father Stern: The fact that the Holy Father presented himself as a German, saying: "It is a duty before the truth and the just due of all who suffered here, a duty before God, for me to come here as the successor of Pope John Paul II and as a son of the German people, that people over which a ring of criminals rose to power by false promises of future greatness and the recovery of the nation's honor, prominence and prosperity, but also through terror and intimidation, with the result that our people were used and abused as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power."
Benedict XVI knows the catechism and he knows that the intervention of a deceitful tempter is not an excuse that can make innocent those who have listened to him and followed him. "The serpent deceived me," Eve said after her sin.
On the other hand, the Pope abstained from specifying how many people followed the Nazi power out of conviction [or] weakness and how many, on the contrary, were able to resist heroically. It belongs to God to read consciences and judge them.
Q: Benedict XVI's visit had three stages: Auschwitz I, with the wall of those shot and the bunker of hunger; the Catholic center for dialogue and prayer; and, finally, Birkenau, also called Auschwitz II, a camp specialized in massacres on an industrial scale. Is it significant that the Pope paused at the Catholic center?
Father Stern: That center, with the Carmel which is next to it, manifests a notable openness of the Polish people to others' sufferings.
Of the 6 million Poles who lost their lives during the war, half were Jews, the other half were all, or almost all, baptized Christians. The majority of the latter were led to death by the Nazis.
Although the proportion of non-Jewish victims in relation to the total population is far lower than the proportion of Jewish victims, around 10% in the first case, and 90% in the second, it is in any case huge figures of wounds that have left profound and painful scars on the Polish people.
Openness to sufferings, and also to the problems of others, which the existence of this center represents, seems very positive to me for the future of Europe.
Q: What perception was there at the time of this barbarism?
Father Stern: For many people in France, at least until 1942, the German invader was still the German of 1914-1918.
My family was in the know, in a general way, of Nazi atrocities. My parents died in Auschwitz. But when they climbed into the cattle wagons that took them there, did they have an idea of the "final solution"? I don't know.
Q: What do you think is important to make new generations understand?
Father Stern: Young people must be made to understand that every man is weak at the moral level.
It is tempting for young people to think: "Our fathers have committed abominations, OK. But we have understood it." In fact, today as yesterday, each one must watch over his convictions and his conduct. Otherwise, there is a great risk of being drawn where, in principle, one did not wish to go.
Q: What impressed you most when Benedict XVI spoke about the Jews?
Father Stern: I was impressed by the continuity between his teachings and those of John Paul II. According to this last Pope, God never gave up the Covenant he made with Israel.
The Jewish people, Benedict XVI said at Auschwitz, "by its very existence, is a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself," who in Sinai enunciated the criteria that remains valid for eternity.
In the intentions of the Nazis, he added, "by destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith."
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