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”Where Was God?”

Theological reflections on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Auschwitz


by Professor Jan-Heiner Tück

Professor Dr. Jan-Heiner Tück

A German Pope going to Auschwitz? Can he do or say anything right in that place of horror? After John Paul II, is it even possible for him to say anything new or inspiring on this difficult terrain? In the run-up to the Pope’s visit to Auschwitz on May 28, 2006, it was frequently said that there was little room for Benedict XVI to add any new touches of his own. Yet, the very fact that he did so as a “son of the German people” shows how, despite all the continuity, he did have something new to say.

The Polish pontiff belonged to a nation that was specifically targeted for victimization by the Nazi regime; Benedict, on the other hand, comes from Germany, the land of perpetrators.  In his role as head of the Catholic Church, he met with survivors of the Nazi reign of terror and prayed for the healing of the wounds of the past. Unlike the Nazi grandees, the Pope did not arrive in a limousine, but walked on foot through the camp gate emblazoned with the cynical expression “Arbeit macht frei”.

Alone, he made his way over to the death wall, against which countless concentration camp inmates had been indiscriminately shot. At this site of suffering, the Pope paused, remained silent, and prayed. A time of silence to remember the muted cries of the dead and to commend their fate to the God of Life.

Papst emeritus Benedikt XVI. läuft durch das Konzentrationslager in Auschwitz. Man sieht ihn auf dem Hof zwischen den Baracken.

The language of gestures

Only then did Benedict XVI personally greet each of the thirty-two survivors who were present. Men and women who had been stamped by the Nazis as faceless numbers were recognized by the Pope as persons with voices and faces, and it was quite noticeable that those meeting here had lived through the same events.

The highlight of the event was the memorial service composed especially for the Pope’s visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Pope had decided not to celebrate Mass so as not to offend the religious sensibilities of those of other faiths, particularly the Jewish survivors. He began by walking past the twenty-two memorial plaques that commemorate the countless victims of the former extermination camp in various languages.

Auschwitz is the largest cemetery in the world, but it contains no graves, so the plaques serve in their place as a reminder of the unburied dead. Near the crematoria, Psalm 22, a prayer of lament, was intoned, putting into words the oppressive feeling that is the eclipse of God: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Papst Benedikt XVI. mit erschüttertem Blick vor der Todesmauer in Auschwitz.

The cry of Job and the language of the Psalms

The address, which the Pope, as head of the Catholic Church, delivered in Italian, undoubtedly carried special weight. He started his speech by emphasizing the singular nature of the crimes of Auschwitz, thus signaling his rejection of certain historical revisionist tendencies that seek to downgrade the Shoah to a marginal note in world history.

The statement that these were “unprecedented mass crimes” can be read as a belated pontifical commentary on the Historikerstreit that took place in West Germany in the 1980s, in which the thesis that the crimes of the Nazis could be compared to and classified alongside other historical events was disputed by pointing out their singularity and lack of historical analogue.

At the same time, Benedict XVI stressed how hard it was for him as a Christian, a Pope from Germany to find the right words to say. His quiet consternation thus turned into to an inward cry to God: “Why did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?” The discursive language of the theologian gave way to the language of prayer, following in the footsteps of Job.

The distressing questions called forth by Auschwitz were taken up by Benedict XVI, demonstrating a keen sensitivity to matters of theodicy. This allowed him to approach the perspectives of those who were wronged, without directly raising the question of historical responsibility for the crime or even addressing the pressing problem of issue for the victims. Instead, he made a powerful appeal for “forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the living God never to let this happen again.”

A reminder to never forget the suffering of the Jewish people

The mere presence of the Pope at Auschwitz showed that the past is not past. It reminds us never to forget the suffering of the Jewish people; on the contrary, to keep it present in our minds so that we might be able to take other, better paths in the future. Nevertheless, the historic claim that the German people had been ideologically instrumentalized by a “ring of criminals” has been criticized because it did not specifically address the German people’s fatigue with democracy and susceptibility to ideology in the final phase of the Weimar Republic.

If Benedict XVI wanted to make it clear that not all Germans were Nazis; i.e., that a blanket assignment of guilt would not be appropriate given the historical realities, he did so in a passage that to some ears contained an exculpatory note. Quite notable, however, were the theological questions posed by Benedict XVI: Where was God at Auschwitz? Why was he silent? How had evil been able to triumph?

Papst Benedikt XVI bei der Begegnung mit Überlebenden des KZ Auschwitz. Man sieht den Rücken des Papstes und die weinenden Gesichter der Überlebenden.

An attempt to kill God himself

Instead of giving a theological response or making a theoretical attempt at theodicy, the Pope recited the words of the Psalm of lament: “You have broken us in the haunt of jackals, and covered us with deep darkness ... because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up, come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!” (Ps 44:19, 22-26).

At the end of his speech, the reflected eloquently on some of the plaques that he had walked past earlier. The memorial inscription in Hebrew, he said, recalls the attempt by the National Socialists to crush the Jewish people as a whole and erase them from the register of the peoples of the earth. Ultimately, this attempt was a deadly attack on God himself, for “Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid.”

The theological rejection of antisemitism could not have been articulated more pointedly.

By attacking the Jews, the historical bearers of faith in the One God, the people of the Decalogue, the witnesses of the Covenant, they were trying to murder God himself, thus eliminating any barriers to the godless rule of the Nazi ideology they wished to establish. The theological rejection of antisemitism could not have been articulated more pointedly. The argument he makes here, that antisemitism is a form of anti-theism – or, in Biblical terms, that the apple of God’s eye is infringed upon wherever his Chosen People are threatened (cf. Zech 2:12) – reveals the deep theological dimensions of Jew-hatred, which usually remain hidden. This may be the most significant statement in his speech.

Benedict XVI, a Pope from the land of the perpetrators, carried on the legacy of his Polish predecessor Pope John Paul II. Remembering the suffering of the victims, made strikingly visible in his pause at the death wall and his silent walk alongside the memorial plaques, was something the Pope felt himself compelled, indeed duty-bound, to do.

At the same time, Benedict XVI commended to victims to the memory of God, knowing full well that it is only the memoria Dei that enables us to hope for the salvation of those who are lost. Even if he could have been more explicit about the historical nature of the crimes, Benedict XVI nevertheless made it unmistakably clear that the attempt to kill the Jewish people can be understood as an attempt to kill God himself.

Innehalten von Papst Benedikt XVI. an einer der Gedenktafeln, die in verschiedenen Sprachen an die unzähligen Opfer des ehemaligen Vernichtungslagers erinnern.

Antisemitism amounts to a kind of anti-theism, because hostility towards the Chosen People is ultimately directed at the God who chose them.

Antisemitism amounts to a kind of anti-theism, because hostility towards the Chosen People is ultimately directed at the God who chose them. In pointing out the deep theological dimension of antisemitism in this way, the Pope went far beyond the ordinary political rhetoric. His plea for reconciliation, however, which was the Pope’s main concern during his visit to Auschwitz, is probably rooted in the painful realization that there are wounds that run so deep that they can no longer be healed by human beings.

Professor Dr. Jan-Heiner Tück

The author, Professor Jan-Heiner Tück, is Professor of Dogmatics in the Faculty of Catholic Theology’s Department of Systematic Theology and Ethics at the University of Vienna.