My father was invited, among a small group of Holocaust survivors and government officials, to attend the pope’s ceremony of remembrance to the victims of the Holocaust, a mandatory event for every dignitary visiting Israel. I got to go along as my father’s escort – a little celebrity-struck, and curious to witness this occasion, hoping, like many others, that something important would be said, some significant gesture to help heal the many hurts that still linger in this dialogue between Judaism and Christianity, and between all people of faiths on this crazy holy land. It’s not every day that one gets to see a pope up close. And it’s not every day that the leader of the Catholic Church who also happens to be a former member of the Hitler Youth is invited to address the world inside a Memorial Tent for the Holocaust.
The Memorial Tent is situated up on the top of Jerusalem’s Memorial Mountain –
It’s a vast, dark chamber, made of concrete, where names of extermination and concentration camps are engraved in rock on the floor and an eternal torch made of steel serves as the main source of light. It was set up with rows of white chairs towards the back. Security men stood every few feet. Swarms of reporters and camera crews were positioned inside and outside the tent, usually so quiet and somber.
Inside the tent we spotted my father’s younger brother, Uncle Yisrael – chief rabbi Lau, who is currently the Chairman of Yad Vashem. In this capacity he was to be the one to officially welcome the pope during the ceremony and present him with a gift. ‘Remember how we met the former pope in Rome? We talked in Polish for 45 minutes…’ my father sighs, ‘he was a good man’. ‘It won’t happen this time’, my uncle replies, ‘I just got a copy of his speech… gurnisht…” (yiddish – for ‘nothing’.)
It was a quick affair, mechanical and polite, a papal-puppet show of sorts – featuring a pope in white, a rabbi in black, a choir in black and white, a wreath, a candle, several lofty words, handshakes, cameras constantly clicking, like gunshots. Keeping it cut and dry and solemn and simple, His Holiness and entourage of 40 cardinals in hot pinks and reds were in and out of the Holocaust Museum compound in 45 minutes as hundreds of policemen in blue exhaled a deep breath or relief.
The problem, as it was discussed all over the media these past two days, wasn’t so much what he chose to publicly remember and proclaim at Yad Vashem but rather, what the Vatican chose not to say – and what not to remember
He chose to remember the Patriarchs, the fathers of Monotheism. During his speech, in a very thick German accent and a small voice, lacking emotion, he called on the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to remember the names of all their children. He invoked the call of Abel, humanity’s first victim of brotherly hatred. And he chose to end in silence, “Silence to remember, silence to pray and silence to hope.”
I jotted down key phrases and looked around – faces were stiff, eyes were dry.”
Silence is sometimes noble and golden, but in this case – the pope’s choice to prefer silence was ominous. The man whose past is murky in regard to this dark chapter in world history; the Pope whose handling of Holocaust Denial among senior clergy has come under international attack – that same man, pope or not, should not have remained silent inside that tent. Not a word of empathy, responsibility or accountability came out of his thin lips. He stood in silence, choosing to forget or ignore – but everybody else who was there remembered and noted.
‘It’s all politics’, M. a reporter shrugs as we discuss the event outside the tent, minutes after it is over. ‘The Vatican is walking a thin line between Israel, the Palestinians, the church and the world – it’s practically a ballet. He’s a prima ballerina…and he’s got to stay safe and bland. And anyway, he’s boring and got no charisma. just forget about it…’
Forgetting about it is exactly what happens in this week’s Torah episode ‘B’har b’chukotai’ – where the demands and perils of memory are recalled. Here, also, the delicate art of memory is in relation to the pains of history. Chapter 36 in Leviticus describes the bad news – when disobedience of God’s law will lead Israel into destruction, hunger, murder and exile. Verse after verse of horrors detail punishments that one can see on display in the halls of any Holocaust museum – prophecy turned into history. But then there is also the promise of redemption – of an end to suffering and the return of hope. At the end of tragedy, promised the Bible – there will be peace, and the promised of wellbeing will be remembered. The one to remember in this instance is God, but perhaps this is also a wake up call for us human – instructing us on when to move on from dwelling on the past, focusing on tragedy– and when to remember our history:
“I will then remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the earth. (Leviticus 36:42)
In the middle of the Memorial tent, on Memorial Mountain, the real remembrance was present, even if the words were silenced.
The Holy Father, invoking the fathers of monotheism as they are also mentioned in this verse, left the act of remembrance to the Great Father himself. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt – he did the best he could. He left the tent, surrounded by cardinals and policemen and the crowd dispersed, and the roads eventually opened again. Off he went, a tired old man in a white dress and red slippers, perhaps bearing on his shoulders way more responsibility than any human should.
On our way out to the parking lot, my father and uncle meet up again. ‘I told you – nothing important…’ my uncle shrugs, hugs my father, then me, and then walks away. Later that evening he is interviewed on TV, calling the visit “a shame – and missed opportunity.”
‘What will you remember about this event’? I ask my father as we’re leaving the Holy Father behind, driving back home through roads lined up with policemen busy dismantling the security fences. My father thinks for a minute before replying ‘I will remember that there wasn’t much to remember –but also – that you came with me. and that’s my answer to his silence.’