As expected, Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to the Holy Land in May did not run as smoothly as we would have liked. The Holy Father was criticized for his past—albeit forced—membership in the Hitler Youth. Also, his moving and heartfelt speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial was criticized for being too soft.
The English and French news services, Reuters and AFP, flatly said that the pope “was a member of the Hitler Youth.” The U.K.’s Timesonline wrote that he “was in the Hitler Youth and enlisted with the Wehrmacht,” noting that “he had the excuse that this was standard practice for young German men at the time.” Israel Today magazine said many Israelis interpreted the pope’s visit to the Holocaust Memorial “as a stunt to cover up his past as a member of the Hitler Youth movement during World War II.” The Associated Press mentioned that, “Benedict says he was coerced.” Similarly, CBS reported that “Benedict has said he was coerced.”
All of this was a despicable smear. The New York Times got it right when it said that the pope “was forced into the Hitler Youth and the German Army in World War II.”Bloomberg.com also got it right when it noted “the German pope’s obligatory membership as a 14-year-old in Hitler Youth”; it said further that he “didn’t attend meetings and he later deserted when he was drafted into the German army.” Moreover, his failure to attend Hitler Youth meetings brought economic hardship to his family: it meant no discounts for school tuition. None of this was a stunt. Furthermore, no one can deny that he was coerced into doing what the Nazis demanded of young men at the time.
We noted that even Bill Maher apologized when we blasted him for accusing the pope of being a Nazi and said that the guilty media should do likewise and correct the record.
After the Holy Father spoke at Yad Vashem, the chairman of the Directorate, Avner Shalev, said that while the pope’s visit was “important,” he regretted that the pope never mentioned anti-Semitism nor the Nazis. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, chairman of the Yad Vashem Council and Tel Aviv’s chief rabbi, said the pope’s speech was “devoid of any compassion, any regret.” Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin accused the pope of not asking for “forgiveness,” noting that the pope’s (coerced) membership in the Hitler Youth means he carries “baggage.”
During his speech, the Holy Father said he had come “to stand in silence before this monument, erected to honor the memory of the millions of Jews killed in the horrific tragedy of the Shoah.” Didn’t Avner Shalev hear that? Or how about these words from the pope? “May the names of these victims never perish! May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten!” Rabbi Lau, never one to miss an opportunity to say it’s never enough, embarrassed his cohorts when he said that the pope’s speech was devoid of compassion. As for Rivlin, he should know that it is not the pope who needs to apologize for the crimes of the Nazis—indeed he was victimized by them.
Following the pope’s visit to Yad Vashem, Palestinian leader Sheik Taysir Tamimi forced his way to the pulpit at an interreligious event asking the pope to fight for “a just peace for a Palestinian state and for Israel to stop killing women and children and destroying mosques as she did in Gaza”; he asked the pope to “pressure the Israeli government to stop its aggression against the Palestinian people.”
The Vatican quickly condemned Sheik Tamimi’s hate speech, as it should have. Where were all the Muslim leaders condemning it? There is a time and a place for everything—and this was wrong on both counts. To exploit the pope’s journey for peace by beckoning him to bash Jews shows how utterly futile it is to have an interreligious meeting with some people. Evidently, Tamimi doesn’t get what “Never Again” really means.