Demographers are always looking for classifications and categories. I mistakenly assumed, as many sons do, that because of what I thought were some unique circumstances, my mom was in a class by herself. Pondering about it, I also wondered how, using Jewish standards, how at the time she would have classified her encounter with a person that almost definitions defines wickedness in our time.
As Holocaust survivors are dying off and their stories are lost, a only a handful of media organizations are putting attention and resources into recounting the tales of the survivors. Its not a popular topic. My research has shown me that interest in the Holocaust is waning, even in the Jewish community.
My 88 year-old mother had never publicly shared her story of survival in a public forum, so I pitched it in an email to journalist Jane Ulman, saying among other things that my mom is probably the last living person in the U.S. to have personally seen both Hitler and Pope Pius XII in the flesh. Well, I stand corrected. As it turns out, a personal acquaintance, journalist Tom Tugend, who lives and works here in Los Angeles emailed me that he saw Hitler twice while living in Berlin (once with Mussolini) and Tom had an audience with Pope Pius XII while stopping in Rome after serving as a volunteer in Israel’s War of Independence. Tom says that he still living—He thinks…
This gave me an insight as to how penetrating and far reaching to audiences personages such as Hitler with his mass rallies and triumphant parades and the Pope with his numerous mass blessings and audiences were even before the penetration of mass media technology. As was said, even a cat may look on a king.
I too had an encounter with a pope, Pope John Paul II on his way from his secret helicopter landing on the USC campus to Mass at the LA Colosseum in 1987. I was about to cross an intersection and a USC security guard stopped me and a limousine turned the corner. I was face to face, not a foot away from the highly recognizable face of John Paull II looking at me directly from his limousine. With a kindly smile, John Paul II raise his hand, either in a wave or perhaps a blessing. So. I did what one is likely to do when waved to be someone in close proximity, I waved back at him.
When I recounted the story in an Jewish Orthodox setting, someone told me I should have said a blessing as the Pope leads millions of people. He turned to the middle of the Art Scroll Kol Yaakov Siddur on page 228 and showed me the blessing upon seeing an lawful ruler who could not be overruled and who has the power of life and death.
This brings me to the blessing upon seeing Hitler. When my mother saw Hitler, he was the lawful ruler with all the required attributes. When I put the question to a rabbi there whether a blessing would have been appropriate, he replied that much discussion about bad kings has taken place in the Talmud, but that a blessing for the leader, regardless of the leader’s politics would have been appropriate.
I guess in the Jewish tradition, as long as he was living, even a person as wicked as Hitler had a chance to redeem himself. In Proverbs 17.23 the radical concept that God can even be bribed by the wicked is introduced and it is hard to imagine a person more wicked than Hitler.
The moment Hitler died, all chances of his redemption were over and we could and should proceed to eradicate his “name” or rather, any memory of him. Perhaps that process of memory atrophy has begun.
If you had a personal encounter with both Hitler and Pope Pius XII or personally know of someone living who did so, I would appreciate you informing me of the circumstance of the occasions at email@example.com. Please join us on Friday, Jan. 27 at noon at the corner of Robertson and Burton Way, or any other location on map for the Mapping Auschwitz border Flash Event being organized by the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
Pini Herman, PhD. has served as Asst. Research Professor at the University of Southern California Dept. of Geography, Adjunct Lecturer at the USC School of Social Work, Research Director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles following Bruce Phillips, PhD. in that position (I was recently notified that with 40,000 visitors this year the 15 year old study of the LA Jewish population was third most downloaded study from Berman Jewish Policy Archives in 2011) and is immediate past President of the Movable Minyan a lay-lead independent congregation in the 3rd Street area. Currently he is a principal of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. To email Pini: firstname.lastname@example.org To follow Pini on Twitter: Follow @pinih