ROME - In a synagogue visit haunted by history, Pope Benedict XVI and Jewish leaders sparred yesterday over the record of the World War II-era pope during the Holocaust and agreed on the need to strengthen Catholic-Jewish relations.
Both sides said the visit to the seat of the oldest Jewish community in the Diaspora was an occasion to overcome what Benedict called "every misconception and prejudice." Benedict stopped at a plaque marking where Roman Jews were rounded up by the Nazis in 1943 and at another memorial. A handful of Holocaust survivors wore striped scarves to symbolize the death-camp uniform.
Benedict defended his predecessor Pius XII against critics, telling the audience that the Vatican worked quietly to save Jews from the Nazis during World War II.
Many Jews object to Benedict moving Pius toward sainthood, contending the wartime pope didn't do enough to protect Jews. The Vatican has maintained that Pius used behind-the-scenes diplomacy in a bid to save Jews.
While he didn't mention Pius by name, Benedict told Jewish leaders in the synagogue that the Vatican "itself provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way." Benedict said Catholics acted courageously to save Jews even as their extermination "tragically reached as far as Rome."
He spoke shortly after Riccardo Pacifici, whose grandparents died at Auschwitz while his father was saved by Italian nuns, said Italian Catholics worked to save Jews but the "silence" of Pius "still hurts as a failed action."
Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni later told the synagogue: "Human silence . . . doesn't escape judgment."
Despite their differences, Benedict said, "When we succeed in uniting our hearts and our hands in response to the Lord's call, his light comes closer and shines on all the people of the world." Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni said the pope's speech helped to "calm the waters."