Yair Wasserman | Wednesday, January 05, 2011
Onlookers and media men gaped as the drama played itself out in the pope’s receiving line. Polish-born Pope John Paul II had returned to his native country for a memorial ceremony at Auschwitz, in which he sought to honor Christian Poles who died as co-victims of the Jews who perished in the Holocaust. On one side of the line was the bearded, dignified rabbi, and opposite him, draped in white, the man considered by hundreds of millions around the world as their spiritual father. The rabbi stood alone, speaking from the heart in fluent Polish, while the pope and his accompanying bevy of bishops and dignitaries all listened wide-eyed, some of them squirming uncomfortably, as they envisioned the horror scenes the rabbi was describing.
Poland’s chief rabbi, Rav Pinchas Menachem Joskowicz, ztz”l — whose shloshim was marked last week — was reacting to the numerous crosses planted throughout Auschwitz, desecrating the sanctified memory of the millions of Jews who had been sent to their deaths in the camp.
In 1979, the pope himself had erected a twenty-six-foot tall cross on the grounds of Auschwitz after reciting mass there for some 500,000 Catholics. Several years later, Carmelite nuns attempted to move their nearby convent to the Auschwitz grounds, and dozens of other “new” crosses were erected, much to the chagrin of the international Jewish community. When Rabbi Joskowicz — himself an Auschwitz survivor — met with the Polish-born pope in 1999, the issue of the crosses had become one of the most explosive issues of the papacy.
Shortly before the pope’s arrival, the government ordered the removal of hundreds of smaller crosses erected at Auschwitz by Catholic militants. But the pope’s cross, meanwhile, remained.
Rabbi Joskowicz created a minor scandal when his appeal, televised live internationally, opened with the remark, “I have a favor to ask Mr. Pope” (instead of the more politic “Your Holiness”). But more than that, he unabashedly put back on the table a sensitive issue the Polish government, and the papacy, would have preferred to suppress.
“Let me tell you a story,” Rabbi Joskowicz (or Rav Mendel, as he was fondly called) addressed the pope. “This is a personal story that has stayed with me for all these long years since those days of darkness. On one of the death marches, when the Nazis forced us to tramp from one place to another for no specific reason, we were ordered to wait by the roadside. It was a sweltering day, and the soaring heat pressed down upon us as we waited in the symbolically fitting backdrop of an abandoned cemetery.
“We waited for an hour, two hours, the sun beating upon our heads and sucking up the very marrow of our bones. We were terribly thirsty — especially the women, children, and old people in our midst, who had barely been able to withstand the march. We were literally dying of thirst, to the point that we put our lips to the tombstones, hoping to find residue of the morning’s dew.
“One woman was half-carrying three small children. She had valiantly carried them along throughout the march, one in her arms and the other two trailing by her side, holding on to her with all their might. As we waited by the roadside, her condition became critical; she was at the end of her strength, lying by the road, her children drooping dangerously by her side, their lips parched, whimpering helplessly in voices that slowly waned, begging for water.
“The mother was at her wit’s end. Where could she find water to revive her withering children? Suddenly, she had an idea. She arose with determination and approached the German soldier guarding us. He, of course, was generously supplied with canteens of cool water from which he slurped every few moments.
“She approached him and begged for a bit of water.” Rav Mendel shuddered as it all came back to him. The pope could not help registering this motion. “She pleaded with him, ‘Just a bit of water for my children who are dying of thirst.’ Without rewarding her with as much as a passing glance, he grabbed his rifle and smashed it down upon her head, killing her on the spot, right in front of the children.
“At that moment, I looked up to Heaven, sure that the sky would come tumbling down upon our heads. I was certain that if anything could shake the heavens and earth, it was this terrible act. Since then, I have experienced many shocking things in life, but nothing compares with that total absence of anything human. Still the sky did not fall and the earth did not quake.
“And if in those moments we did not make Auschwitz into a place of religion,” said Rav Mendel, shaking an accusing figure at the shocked pope, “if then, when every vestige of compassion was obliterated, no religious icons or symbols were erected, how can there now be any justification for exhibiting so many crosses throughout the camp, whose victims were primarily Jews?”
Following the rabbi’s confrontation with the pope, most of the new crosses — the pope’s own received a reprieve — were removed. For Rabbi Joskowicz, however, the meeting was the final significant event in his service as chief rabbi of Poland.
Various powers within the Catholic hierarchy took offense at the pressure put upon the pope, and sought allies among the Jewish community. Flaunting the photo of the rabbi wagging his finger in the pope’s face, they declared that this irreverent act was a severe breach of respect toward the Church, and took the necessary steps to have Rav Mendel removed from the position he had served in for a decade and returned to Eretz Yisrael.