Since the sudden resignation announcement of Pope Benedict XVI on Monday, February 11, due to health and age concerns, the retiring German Pope’s Nazi-era childhood and his relationship with the Jewish people is again being discussed.
As Joseph Ratzinger (his original name), the outgoing Pope joined the Hitler youth at the age of 14. Later he was drafted into the German military but deserted it. Although he was eventually exonerated of any actual Nazi allegiance or anti-Semitism in his past, this continued to haunt Benedict throughout his eight years as Pope.
“When he was elected pope a lot of alarm bells went off in the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, according to ABC News. But the Wiesenthal Center investigated the Pope’s past and found little evidence of a personal allegiance with Nazi views. “The fact that he was in the Hitler youth—if you were a young child during the Third Reich and you didn’t go, you’d be condemned,” Hier said.
However, although Pope Benedict called the Holocaust a “dark time” in his life, both he and his predecessor Pope John Paul II pushed for the sainthood of Pope Pius XII, who has been widely accused of silence during the Second World War while millions of Jews were being gassed in concentration camps.
Although the Vatican has always denied this and said that Pius had worked “secretly and silently” to help Jews at the time, many still believe he did little to stop the atrocities. “Pope Pius XII didn’t care much about Jews. He was the pope of silence,” Hier said.
During his time as Pope, Benedict was also criticized for re-permitting in some cases the use of the old Latin mass that prays for Jews to be converted to Catholicism and “delivered from their darkness.” On the other hand, in his memoir, Benedict dispelled the ancient view that Jews are responsible for the death of Christ.