Pope Francis became the third pontiff to personally witness the remnants of the horrors of the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps in Poland last Friday. His historic visit came as part of a five-day trip to the predominantly Catholic eastern European country.
The former German Nazi concentration camp in southern Poland opened in 1940 in what was called Oswiecim, a small city that the Nazis occupied during its onslaught across Europe.
Paying tribute to the more than one million people, mostly Jews who perished there during the Holocaust years of the 1940s, the Pope briefly met with Holocaust survivors and their families. Arriving early on Friday, the Pope remained silent as he sat alone for some time in solemn reflection of the heinous genocide that took place in the notorious death camp. Surrounded by piles of rubble, a lugubrious aura filled the air, as the Pope witnessed the destroyed gas chambers once used to put Jews to death after their arrival at the camp on cattle car trains.
In this age of rampant terrorism and daily mass murders of innocents, the Pope issued a stern warning last Wednesday; saying that “the world is at war.” His statement was prompted by the horrific slaying of a Catholic priest in a church in Normandy, France by two ISIS terrorists. The priest who had his throat slashed was the latest act of radical Islamic barbarism that has roiled Europe in recent weeks.
"The world is at war because it has lost peace," he said. "There is a war of interests, there is a war for money, a war for natural resources, a war to dominate people.”
In the guestbook at Auschwitz, the Pope left a message acknowledging the unspeakable horrors that were committed there and stressed the need for forgiveness. He offered his signature and wrote: “Lord have mercy on your people! Lord, forgiveness for so much cruelty!”
The Pope’s visit also included an encounter with 25 Christian Poles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. This symbolic meeting was orchestrated by Poland's chief rabbi. According to an AP report, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, had hoped for quite some time to facilitate such an important meeting in Poland between a Pope and those Polish citizens who put their own lives at risk during the nightmarish years of World War II to save Jewish lives.
Yad Vashem in Israel has recognized 6,620 Polish gentiles who sheltered Jews among the "Righteous Among the Nations." Today fewer than 240 in Poland are still alive.
Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, hailed the Pope's Auschwitz trip as "a strong signal" against hatred and called the Catholic Church leader "one of the closest allies Jews have today in the fight against anti-Semitism and bigotry," according to a CNN report.
"Auschwitz is an eternal reminder of what can happen when hatred is allowed to fester, when the world remains silent in the face of evil and looks the other way as unspeakable crimes are being committed nearby," Lauder said. "We thank him for going to Auschwitz. His visit there sends an important signal to the world that this dark chapter must never be forgotten and that the truth about what happened seven decades ago must not be obfuscated."
In a related development, Gerald Posner, the author of “God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican,” suggested in an op-ed piece in the New York Times that Pope Francis’ trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau could gain even more historic significance if he were to use the backdrop to finally release the Vatican’s sealed Holocaust-era archives.
While it is common knowledge that there has been a perennial shroud of mystery surrounding the church’s wartime records, Posner noted that “the Vatican is the only country in Europe that refuses to open all of its World War II archives to independent historians and researchers.”
Because the church’s files are thought to contain important information about the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe it is of no surprise that historians are eager to study the Vatican’s Holocaust-era papers. During the war, thousands of parish priests communicated details of the atrocities that they witnessed to their bishops, who then passed the information on to the secretary of state at the Holy See in Rome, according to Posner’s meticulous research.
He adds that, “One of the monsignors in charge of reviewing those thousands of reports was Giovanni Battista Montini, later Pope Paul VI.”
Pope Pius XII, who served as pontiff during World War II, was reported to have approached Hitler towards war’s end, and asked him to cease the mass murder of Europe’s remaining Jews. Hitler was said to have cynically retorted, “I am just finishing the job that you (The Catholic Church) started centuries ago.”
The files could also indicate whether Pius XII could have done more in trying to stop the Nazi killing machine during the Holocaust.
Posner reveals that since the 1960s, the church had agreed to release some wartime files, but has remained adamant in its refusal to grant historians unfettered access to all the files. Despite President Bill Clinton’s efforts to convince dozens of other nations to release their Holocaust files, the Vatican stood unmoved by the urgent request.
What is most disturbing is the lack of information currently available about the enigmatic Vatican Bank that was established during World War II. Posner writes of the Vatican’s files, “Those documents could resolve conclusively how much business the Vatican did with the Third Reich, as well as the extent of insurance company investments that yielded enormous profits from life insurance policies of Jews sent to Auschwitz, which I uncovered in my own reporting.”
Prior his 2013 election as Pope, and while still archbishop in his native Argentina, Francis had been queried as to the ongoing dispute over the church’s Holocaust files. Posner writes that at the time, Francis answered by saying that he thought the church should “open them (the files) and clarify everything.”
At this juncture, neither the Pope nor his spokespeople at the Vatican have indicated that they are willing to release the war time files, leading to further suspicions of the church’s culpability in the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust.