Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Pope at Yad Vashem

On March 23rd 2000 Pope John Paul II visited Yad Vashem. At the time I was the head of archives there, and thus managed to be at the ceremony.

From what I've heard, the visit of the present Pope this week was not particulalary memorable. John Paul's, was. It was also historic, of course.

Just this evening, totally by coincidence, I stumbled across something I wrote the evening after that first visit. So here it is:

John Paul II at Yad Vashem

The security measures were severe even by the paranoid standards of our goons. The roads leading to Yad Vashem had been cleared of all parked vehicles the evening before. The entire mountain had been ringed off, and for the first time anyone could remember, Yad Vashem was closed to the public on a workday. Not that it was empty, mind you, what with the throngs of press, VIPs, and multitudes of security types. Visits of Heads of State are routine at Yad Vashem, and often call forth no more than a mildly curious glance, but the Pope, contrary to Stalin's derisory scepticism, is no mere Head of State.

The few hundred of us who were allowed into the Hall of Memory, Ohel Yizkor, had to be inside 45 minutes before the ceremony started. There were a handful of government ministers, a gaggle of ambassadors, a pride of high-ranking officers and civil servants, the inevitable donors, not to mention the journalists, technicians, participants, and sycophants. The cardinals, 15 of them or so, were allowed to come late, merely ten minutes before the Pope himself.

So it was an unusual situation, with so much power - perceived, imagined or real - cooped up in a closed, dark and cold hall, waiting. At one point, one of our chief religious figures, so high-ranking that he was positioned down on the floor of the Ohel itself, sauntered across to exchange some pleasantries with a lesser luminary sitting in the front row of the gallery.
To my great astonishment, his path took him over the names of three concentration camps, engraved into the floor, his indifference to them total. Pleasantries completed, he sauntered back, this time trodding on two other camps. Looking closer, it became clear that others were disregarding the essence of the venue just as blithely.

John Paul II, when he arrived, did not allow himself to be led over the names.

Frail, bent, concentrating on each step and move, he eclipsed everyone present. Wearing plain white robes, his hair and skullcap white and his complexion pale, he seemed almost to glow in the dark surroundings. The structure of the ceremony had been outlined with representatives of the Vatican over months of discussions, so the fact that he was to walk back and forth from his chair to the eternal flame, to the laying of the wreath, to the survivors, to the podium, back to the survivors of his hometown of Wadovice, so unlike papal audiences where he sits and everyone else comes to him, must have been his own decision. And all in painful, mincing steps, bowed over his cane, deferential to the site, to the survivors, to the memory - and never stepping on the names of the camps, even when it would have been easier. It was that humble sign of respect, of acknowledgement of holiness, that made the greatest impression on me. A holiness not defined by canon, nor by halacha, but by the truest essence of holiness itself, of deference towards something that is greater than the mundane and ephemeral.

His words, of sorrow, of the need for silence (so different from the silence of that predecessor), bore the tone of a deep sincerity, strengthened by the situation, enhanced by his body language. The Head of the Roman Catholic Church, the single most important living figure in Christendom, bowed, sorrowful and deferential at the central Jewish site of memory to the Shoah.

The single figure in the hall whose aura was not totally eclipsed by that of the Pope was Ehud Barak. Attentive to the frailty of his guest, courteous and appreciative, he nevertheless stood ramrod straight. Courteous, but not deferential, he also was careful not to step on the words; he seemed also to be aware of the holiness, and by talking of his murdered grandparents, to be claiming it.

It was a fascinating twist: John Paul II, evoking with his age and aura of power and charisma the ancient lineage of his institution and its ongoing vitality, stooping - nay, rising - to an act of human weakness: to sorrow, to regret, to mourning; Ehud Barak, in the name of the even older Jews, appearing as the young host, gravely accepting the sentiments of his guest.

After the ceremony, Edith Zirer summed up the occasion poignantly. As a 14-year-old survivor at liberation, she had been assisted back towards Cracow by a young Polish clergyman. When he became Pope, she had visited him, to thank him. Now, he was her guest, and, as she told a reporter, "there is also sadness. I don't expect us ever to meet again". A 55-year circle had been closed.

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