KRAKOW, Poland – Ultimately, the point of the Holocaust memorial at the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, where 1.1 million people perished under the Nazis, is memory – the determination that these horrors must never be forgotten, in part so that they are not repeated.
On Friday, Pope Francis makes clear that this commitment to memory is a corporate undertaking of the Catholic Church, not dependent upon the biography or personal background of a given pope, but effectively a requirement of the job regardless of who holds it.
Francis becomes the third pontiff to visit Auschwitz, after St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and in effect, the first whose presence does not, at least in any obvious way, reflect his own past. He neither came of age in the shadow of Auschwitz, nor hails from the country responsible for it.
John Paul, of course, grew up in Wadowice, a small town with a large Jewish population in the 1930s, located just 20 miles from Oświęcim, the Polish form of “Auschwitz.” He personally knew families who were deported to the camp and died, and as a Pole who had watched the near-annihilation of the country’s Jewish population, he felt a powerful personal drive to bear witness.
After he became an auxiliary bishop of Krakow in 1958 and until his election to the papacy twenty years later, Karol Wojtyla often visited the parishes of Oświęcim, and would typically include a stop at the camp and its memorial. His sermons on those parish visits strongly emphasized the need to pray for the dead, and also to pray on behalf of those who cannot come to Oswiecim/Auschwitz.
As pope, John Paul visited Auschwitz in 1979, on his very first visit back to his native country, and said: “It is well known that I have been here many times. So many times! It was impossible for me not to come here as pope.”
Benedict XVI repeated the gesture in May 2006, on his own first (and only) trip to Poland as the pope, and he too had clear personal reasons for feeling a strong drive to do so.
Joseph Ratzinger grew up in Nazi Germany, with his father a police official who took a series of less significant posts and eventually early retirement to avoid being swept up into the regime. As is well known, the young Ratzinger was briefly, and involuntarily, enrolled in the Hitler Youth when membership became mandatory for people of his age, and was also drafted into the German army near the end of the Second World War.
Thus when as pope, Benedict stood in Auschwitz and declared that as a “son of the German people” he felt obliged to be there, it has obvious, and powerful historical resonance.
Pope Francis does, of course, come from a nation with a significant Jewish population and he has strong personal ties to Argentina’s Jewish community, including his friendship with Rabbi Abraham Skorka and his drive to drive to aid the victims of 1992 and 1994 bomb attacks a Jewish facility in Buenos Aires.
Beyond that, however, his Auschwitz visit is not primarily a result of either biography or baggage, but rather is almost entirely about Francis’s faith – principally, in this case, his commitment to memory as both a duty and a path to healing.
When he travelled to Armenia in June, he included a stop at the genocide memorial on the hill of Tsitsernakaberd outside Yerevan, which recalls the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks at the end of World War I, and focused on the importance of never forgetting the past.
“Not to forget is not only a right, it is a duty,” he told the Armenians. “May they be a perennial warning lest the world fall back into the maelstrom of similar horrors!”
Francis wrote in the memorial’s Book of Honor: “Memory must neither be watered down nor forgotten; it is the source of peace and of the future.”
On Friday, the pontiff expresses a similar faith in memory as the springboard to change against an even more dramatic backdrop at Auschwitz, the most lethal death camp in the history of the planet, and the leading symbol of history’s best-known attempt at genocide.
Francis will meet a small group of Holocaust survivors at Auschwitz, including a 101-year-old survivor who is presently hosting pilgrims who are in Poland to participate in the Church’s World Youth Day festivities. He’ll also greet 25 “Righteous among the Nations,” an honorific title bestowed by the State of Israel on non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews.
Now that three popes in a row have scheduled a stop at Auschwitz, including one who has no real personal connection to the place, it seems clear that every future pope who visits Poland – and it’s hard to imagine a papacy of any duration that wouldn’t feature at least one stop in this hugely Catholic nation – will also make the trek to Auschwitz, expressing not only his personal commitment to memory but that of the entire Church.
“We Remember,” in other words, isn’t merely the title of a 1998 Vatican document on the Shoah, but it’s now the program of the papacy in action.
As Marco Gallo recently pointed out, Francis has an extensive track record of both words and deeds related to the Holocaust. On this occasion, however, Francis has indicated he doesn’t want to say anything, preferring to stand in Auschwitz with nothing but prayer and tears.
In part, of course, that’s probably deft imaging, avoiding the possibility of inadvertently politicizing the moment by saying something that comes off the wrong way. (That’s what happened to Benedict in 2006, who was criticized for suggesting that the Nazis didn’t just want to destroy the Jews but God himself, and thus also the source of the Christian faith.)
Yet in a way it doesn’t matter whether Francis actually says anything at Auschwitz, because the stop itself speaks volumes.