Trouble Mars Pope’s Trip to Auschwitz

Eleven years ago, at ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, misunderstandings between Poles and Jews ran so deep that even a rabbi’s desire to say the Mourner’s Kaddish reportedly disturbed some Polish politicians.

In fact, there were so many debates over the tenor of the event that two separate ceremonies were held: one for Jews, the other arranged by the Polish government.

At last Sunday’s visit by Pope Benedict XVI, not only was Kaddish recited, but a whole new Catholic sensitivity to Jews was on display — even as Poland struggles to battle xenophobia and anti-Semitism, sometimes from Catholic sources.

When meeting former inmate Henrik Mandelbaum, who was forced to burn the bodies of his fellow Jews in the Birkenau crematoria, the normally reserved Benedict kissed him on both cheeks.

Poland’s chief rabbi, U.S.-born Michael Schudrich, said Kaddish in the presence of the pope and the country’s top elected leaders, and recalled those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the gas chambers.

Forced in his native Germany to join the Hitler Youth as a teen, Benedict said: “The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth.”

But Schudrich noted that the pope “stopped short of decrying anti-Semitism, and although his visit was a wonderful gesture to us all, not mentioning anti-Semitism was a glaring omission.”

The chief rabbi’s sentiments were echoed by a number of Jewish observers, including Auschwitz survivor Kalman Sultanik and Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

The pope’s visit came at a time when Polish-Jewish relations are soaring. The country has the largest number of and best-attended Jewish festivals in Europe, countless Catholic-Jewish initiatives and massive government financial support for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, expected to open in Warsaw in 2009.

However, the specter of anti-Semitism has not been erased in the country that was home to one of the world’s largest Jewish communities before World War II.

Less than one month ago, an extreme-right Catholic party whose politicians have a long history of anti-Jewish and anti-gay positions joined the coalition government at the request of Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz.

The League of Polish Families is presided over by Roman Giertych, the country’s new minister of education. Giertych is formerly head of the All-Polish Youth, whose members have been photographed giving the Nazi salute, according to media reports. The league has its roots in the National Democratic movement, which advocated violence against Jews in the 1930s and was led by Giertych’s grandfather.

In dozens of interviews, Jews and non-Jews said they worry that Giertych’s rise had empowered the small segment of Polish society that is intolerant and xenophobic.

Several high-profile acts of anti-Semitism leading up to the pope’s visit upset Poland’s Jewish community, estimated at up to 10,000 in a country of 38 million.

Schudrich was, for the first time in his 15 years in the country, assaulted Saturday coming out of synagogue, when a man hit him in the face and attacked him with pepper spray, shouting, “Poland is for Poles.”

The previous Shabbat, some young men shouted anti-Semitic slogans at the rabbi and other worshippers.

Schudrich connected the ascension of Giertych and the league, which garnered 8 percent of the vote in the 2005 parliamentary elections, with these events and other recent incidents, including anti-Jewish threats sent by text message to Jewish student leaders and the stabbing of an anti-fascist by skinheads in Warsaw.

“There is a price to letting in extreme rightists into the government. It empowers xenophobic, homophobic and anti-Semitic members of society,” Schudrich said.