A huge crowd gathered to hear the Vatican leader honor Jewish Holocaust victims and those persecuted by the Soviets. On the first papal trip to the Baltics in 25 years, Francis warned against resurgent anti-Semitism.
Pope Francis on Sunday remembered the near extermination of Lithuania’s Jewish community during World War II while speaking to a crowd of around 100,000 people on the second of his four-day trip to the Baltics.
At an open-air mass in Lithuania’s second-largest city, Kaunas, he honored the Jewish victims of the 1941-1944 Nazi occupation.
“The Jewish people suffered insults and cruel punishments,” Francis recounted to those gathered in the city’s Santakos Park.
The pope also paid tribute to Lithuanians who were deported to Siberian gulags or tortured and oppressed during five decades of Soviet occupation.
“Earlier generations still bear the scars of the period of the occupation, anguish at those who were deported, uncertainty about those who never returned, and shame for those who were informers and traitors,” he said.
He added that Lithuania “still shudders at the mention of Siberia, or the ghettos of Vilnius and Kaunas, among others.”
Warning on anti-Semitism
The pope also warned about a resurgence of “pernicious” anti-Semitic sentiments that fueled the Holocaust and hinted of his displeasure at the historical revisionism taking place across Eastern Europe, as some countries seek to reframe their role in the Nazi genocide.
He denounced those who get caught up in debating who was more virtuous in the past and warned against the temptation to desire primacy and domination over others.
The revisionism issue has divided Lithuanians, where ordinary people executed Jews alongside the Nazi occupiers, wiping out the Jewish population of the capital of Vilnius during the war.
Lithuanian shame remains
More than 200,000 Lithuanian Jews were murdered by the Nazis. The country’s Jewish community today numbers about 3,000.
Vilnius had been known for centuries as the “the Jerusalem of the North” because of its importance to Jewish thought and politics.
Sunday is the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Jewish ghetto in the capital, Vilnius. On September 23 and 24, 1943 its surviving Jewish residents were either executed or sent off to concentration camps.
This year also marks the Baltic countries’ 100-year anniversary of their independence from the Russian Empire at the end of World War I.
The Vatican later refused to recognize their 1940 annexation into the Soviet Union under a secret agreement with Nazi Germany.
Except for the 1941-1944 Nazi occupation, the Baltic countries remained part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in the early 1990s.
Baltics tour continues
On Sunday afternoon, the pope was due to visit a monument to the Kaunas ghetto victims before heading to a former Soviet KGB prison where hundreds were murdered and thousands, including many priests, shipped off to Siberia.
Francis will then travel to Latvia and Estonia on Monday and Tuesday to mark their 100th anniversaries of independence and to encourage the Catholic faith in the Baltics, which saw five decades of Soviet-imposed religious repression and state-sponsored atheism.