The Visit of Pope John Paul II

Address by Prime Minister Ehud Barak
at Yad Vashem

Jerusalem, 23 March 2000

Your Holiness, Pope John Paul II,

Allow me to open with a few words in our language, the language of Abraham, Moses and the Covenant, which has once again become the native language of the land of Israel.

[In Hebrew: A 2,000-year-old historical cycle is returning here to its beginning, bearing the weight of remembrance – its richness and pain, its light and shadows, its song and laments. The wounds of time will not be healed in a day, but the path which brought you here leads to a new horizon. This hour will go down in history as a propitious hour, a moment of truth, the victory of justice and hope.]

Your Holiness,

In the name of the Jewish people, in the name of the State of Israel and all of its citizens – Christians, Muslims, Druze and Jews – I welcome you, in friendship, in brotherhood, and in peace, here in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, the eternal city of faith.

Your Holiness,

We meet today in this sanctuary of memory, for the Jewish people and for all humanity. "Yad Vashem" – literally "a place and a name" – for the six million of our brothers and sisters, for one and a half million children, victims of the barbarian evil of Nazism.

When the darkness of Nazism descended, and my people were led from all over Christian Europe to the crematoria and the gas chambers, it seemed that no longer could one place any hope in God or man. That in the words of the prophet Joel, "The sun and the moon darkened and the stars withdrew their luster." And the silence was not only from the heavens. During that time, here in the land of Israel, the poet Natan Alterman wrote these searing, tormented verses:

"As our children cried underneath the gallows,
the wrath of the world we did not hear…"

Your Holiness,

From the depths of that "long night of the Shoah", as you have called it, we saw flickers of light, shining like beacons against the utter darkness around them. These were the righteous gentiles, mostly children of your faith, who secretly risked their lives to save the lives of others. Their names are inscribed on the walls around us here at "Yad Vashem"; they are forever inscribed on the tablets of our hearts.

You, Your Holiness, were a young witness to the tragedy. And as you wrote to your Jewish childhood friend, you felt, in some sense, as if you yourself experienced the fate of Polish Jewry. When my grandparents, Elka and Shmuel Godin, mounted the death trains at Umschlagplatz near their home in Warsaw, headed towards their fate at Treblinka – the fate of three million Jews from your homeland – you were there, and you remembered.

You have done more than anyone else to bring about the historic change in the attitude of the Church towards the Jewish people, initiated by the good Pope John XXIII, and to dress the gaping wounds that festered over many bitter centuries.

And I think I can say, Your Holiness, that your coming here today, to the Tent of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, is a climax of this historic journey of healing. Here, right now, time itself has come to a standstill… This very moment holds within it two thousand years of history. And their weight is almost too much to bear.

Shortly before setting out on your pilgrimage here, you raised the flag of fraternity to full mast, setting into Church liturgy a request for forgiveness, for wrongs committed by members of your faith against others, especially against the Jewish people.

We appreciate this noble act most profoundly.

Naturally, it is impossible to overcome all the pains of the past overnight. Your Holiness has frequently commented on problems regarding past relations between Christianity and the Jews. It is our wish to continue productive dialogue on this issue, to work together to eliminate the scourge of racism and anti-Semitism.

Your Holiness,

Mine is a nation that remembers. However onerous the burden of memory, we may not avoid it, because without memory there can be neither culture nor conscience.

The establishment of the State of Israel against all odds, and the ingathering of the exiles not only has restored to the Jewish people its honor and mastery over its fate; it is the definitive, permanent answer to Auschwitz. We have returned home, and since then no Jew will ever remain helpless or be stripped of the last shred of human dignity. Here, at the cradle of our civilization, we have rebuilt our home, so that it may thrive in peace and security. Defending our state has claimed a heavy toll.

We are now resolved to find paths to historical reconciliation. We are in the midst of an enormous effort to secure comprehensive peace with our Palestinian neighbors, with Syria and Lebanon, and with the entire Arab world.

Your Holiness,

We have noted with appreciation your words about the unique bond of the Jewish people to Jerusalem, that, and I quote you, "Jews love Jerusalem with a passion… from the days of David who chose it as a capital, and from the days of Solomon who built the temple there; therefore they turn to it in their prayers every day, and point to it as a symbol of their nation."

I would like to reiterate our absolute commitment to protect all rights and properties of the Catholic Church, as well as those of the other Christian and Muslim institutions; to continue to ensure full freedom of worship to members of all faiths equally; and to keep united Jerusalem open and free, as never before, to all who love her. I know that you pray, as we do, for the unity and peace of Jerusalem:

"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem… Peace be within thy walls and prosperity within thy palaces, for my brethren and companions’ sake I will now say, peace be within thee."

Your Holiness,

You have come on a mission of brotherhood, of remembrance and of peace.

And we say to you:
Blessed are you in Israel.    
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