Years ago an elderly reader, Tova Honig, phoned to inquire when I came into the world and if it was in Holland. She was disappointed to learn that I wasn't born before WWII and nowhere near the Netherlands. She explained that she had a little niece called Sarah Honig who lived in Rotterdam and perished in the Holocaust. Seeing my byline in the paper rekindled what she dubbed "a desperate, irrational hope."
We became friendly and kept in touch. I almost felt I owed it to her. When Yad Vashem uploaded its files onto the Web I looked for my Dutch namesake.
It wasn't easy - there were numerous slain Sarah Honigs.
Eventually I found Tova's niece and was shocked to discover that her doting father - Tova's brother - had the exact same name as my doting father. I dread imagining Sarah's final journey and it horrifically gnaws at me, underscoring and conferring a new dimension on the Haggada's injunction that we should all consider ourselves as if we were personally enslaved in Egypt.
I don't suppose Pope Benedict XVI ever heard of schoolgirl Sarah, but when he visited Auschwitz-Birkenau I expected to hear sincere contrition and something soul-searing from him about how a million and a half Jewish babies and children were exterminated like vermin - not in a violent fit but in an orderly, methodical, perfectly premeditated fashion.
I thought he should stress that of all the war victims anywhere they alone were sentenced to torturous deaths for no other reason than the identity of the parents who conceived them.
They weren't haphazard "collateral damage" or unfortunate casualties in crazed massacres. Their murder was painstakingly plotted and executed mass-production style. Every last one of them was condemned - from birth - not because any tot hailed from an enemy-combatant population, not because of opinions, lifestyle or even religious creed. Politically incorrect as it may be, their targeting was unique.
BUT THE first German pope since the Holocaust never said so. He noted the various nationalities of Auschwitz prisoners, as if the tragedy were identical and the proportions equal. He stood in Birkenau - 95 percent of whose inmates were Jewish - citing inscriptions from the memorial monument's multilingual plaques, among which he also referred to a Jewish one - one of many, nothing exceptional. (This time at least he included Jews, something he failed to do last year when censuring terrorism against an inventory of nations - with one omission: Israel.)
Jewish memorial prayers and a terse, incomprehensible address in halting English-accented Polish (by Poland's American chief rabbi who, significantly, was attacked just a day earlier by a local anti-Semite) couldn't begin to defrost deep ecclesiastical iciness.
The pontiff's visit to the biggest killing field of Jews was no occasion for a Jew, despite Benedict's sanctimonious supplication: "Why, Lord, did you remain silent?" As a cleric who cautions his flock against presuming to fathom divine mysteries, he'd have done better to ask where his historically anti-Semitic Catholic Church was; why pope Pius XII - whom the Vatican intends to canonize - wasn't only indifferent to the Jewish lot but callously hostile; why the Vatican helped war criminals escape postwar - after all self-preservation pretexts expired? There must be cogent cause for still refusing to open Vatican wartime records.
IF ANY doubt lingered about how snugly Josef Ratzinger fits into the moral mold of his native land, his assertion that Germans "were used and abused" by "a ring of criminals" incontrovertibly indicates that, like most his smug compatriots, he evidently subscribes to a laundered version of history, where the Holocaust is reduced to a crime without perpetrators.
No occupied country colluded in deporting its Jews, none spawned greedy looters and collaborators, while the occupiers themselves were a mythical band of no distinct ethnicity, known generically as Nazis, or "a ring of criminals." Even Germans mustn't be obliged to assume collective culpability for them.
Sanitized history portrays Germans as yet another pitiably occupied nation. The Allies "liberated" - not vanquished - them. Germans prefer to bellyache about their suffering, avoiding excessive emphasis on the fact that without millions of ardent followers and enthusiastic accomplices, no "ring of criminals" could have sadistically slaughtered multitudes.
With blitzkrieg intensity, bloodstained Germany was transformed into spotless progressive New Germany, which goes out of its way to profess liberality and beneficence. The pope, as he described himself, is indeed "a son of Germany."
For Germans collectively WWII's calculated, systemized, industrialized bloodletting constituted something akin to reform school. Dutiful Germans recited their lessons, did their homework, sat for their exams and graduated with honors. What more can Jews demand of them? They paid their dues. They emerged edified from the cataclysm.
Jews didn't similarly purify themselves nor rise to Germany's superior ethical standards, overcome the distasteful past as elegantly as all Europeans and surmount residual unpleasantness. Jews are yet to acquire the uplifting grace of forgetting and forgiving, of letting bygones be bygones.
Dwelling on Jewish grievances and ongoing vulnerability attests to incorrigibility and benighted backwardness.
That's why, all the righteous universalistic platitudes pontificated by Benedict XVI at Birkenau notwithstanding, he couldn't bring himself to specifically denounce continuing genocidal machinations against the still-endangered Jewish people, whose state alone remains threatened with annihilation.
This pope appeared oblivious to the threat. To hear him, little Sarah from Rotterdam was an incidental victim, not a primary target. It wasn't her "the ring of criminals" was chiefly after at all. The anonymous felons "ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith."
Sarah somehow was martyred in the context of an onslaught on Christianity.