Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis

New York Times
June 7, 1999

Pope Tells Poles of Modern Martyrs


ELPLIN, POLAND -- Visiting a part of his homeland that was annexed into the German Reich during World War II, John Paul II reminded Poles Sunday that Christian martyrdom continued well into this century.

"Three hundred and three pastors were taken from the land of Pelplin, and at the cost of their lives heroically testified to the message of hope in the dramatic period of war and occupation," the pope told 300,000 people gathered on a hill outside the small town of Pelplin. "If today we remember these martyred priests, it is because it was from their lips that our generation heard the word of God."

The 79-year-old pope, who arrived in nearby Gdansk on Saturday for a 13-day visit to his homeland, is tending to his Polish flock 10 years after the fall of Communism and is also underlining the themes of his papacy as he prepares to usher the Roman Catholic Church into the third millennium.

His persistent theme of reconciliation and a new evangelization are the core of his message. But as a Pole who studied for the priesthood underground during the Nazi occupation and witnessed the deportation of priests and of his own university professors, he has long sought to remind the world of the persecution of Catholics during the war.

The region around Pelplin was particularly hard-hit: 46 percent of its priests died in concentration camps, the highest rate in Poland. Next Sunday, the pope is planning to beatify 108 Catholics who were killed by the Nazis and who have been declared martyrs for their faith. The pope's focus on Catholic suffering has angered many Jewish groups, which complain that the Vatican is seeking to "Christianize" the Holocaust and to deflect attention from the many instances of Catholic collaboration with the Nazis.

John Paul has sought throughout his papacy to reconcile Jews and Christians. He visited Auschwitz on his first papal visit to Poland 20 years ago. Last year, the church issued a long-awaited document on the Shoah, a public act of contrition for some Catholics' failure to resist the Nazi persecution of Jews. But many Jewish organizations maintain that his legacy is still mixed.

While in Warsaw, the pope will pay his respects to the Jews who perished in extermination camps during the war by praying at a newly erected monument to the victims of the Holocaust in central Warsaw. Shortly before his arrival, the Polish government removed the hundreds of crosses that had been erected at Auschwitz by Catholic militants, in defiance of the Polish bishops and the Vatican; the crosses had long been a source of conflict between Jews and Catholics.

The pope evoked World War II and its aftermath more than once Sunday. He also held an evening prayer service in Elblag, a small town near the border with Russia. Among the 200,000 people who came to see him were Roman Catholics from Lithuania and also from Russia -- mostly from Kaliningrad, which was German for 700 years, was absorbed by the Soviet Union after the war and remains, edgily, a part of Russia.

There was also a small delegation of Russian Orthodox believers. The pope has sought to mend the schism between the Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, but Patriarch Alesky II of Russia has so far resisted rapprochement. When the pope welcomed the Orthodox visitors by name, the crowd applauded.

"We are all dreaming of the day when the pope can come to Russia and set foot on Red Square," Bishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the apostolic administrator of Moscow, said before the Mass. Sunday, basking in a warm sun and the applause and cheers of fellow Poles, the pope also dwelled on happier memories. He departed from his prepared text toward the end of both appearances. At one point in Elblag, he playfully told the crowd that was shouting "Niech zyje papiez!" or "Long live the pope!" that their chant reminded him of a time when a follower mistakenly cried out, "eupiez," which in Polish rhymes with "papiez," but which is actually the word for dandruff. He grew nostalgic in Pelplin, where he long ago kayaked in the Brda River. "I adore the beauty of this region," he told the crowd. Many in the audience could remember seeing the pope when he was a vigorous outdoorsman. Sunday, they could not help but notice how age and illness have taken their toll. Though his mood was often ebullient and he spoke clearly, his body was stooped and his left hand trembled uncontrollably -- a symptom that may be caused by Parkinson's disease.

The bishop of Pelplin, Jan Bernard Szlaga, made a rare public mention of the pope's suffering. "The faithful came here to be together with you, Holy Father, who have been bearing a cross every day," he said.
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