But the Pope's autobiography says he was a Hitler Youth member.
Vatican: Pope was 'never, never, never,' in Hitler Youth
By Haaretz Staff and Reuters
German-born Pope Benedict was never a member of the Hitler Youth, the official Vatican spokesman said on Tuesday, contradicting quotes from the pope himself that have been aired again during his visit to Israel.
Reverand Federico Lombardi said the pope, whose speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial on Monday was criticized in Israel as too abstract, was a member of anti-aircraft units that many youths were drafted into in the last two years of World War Two.
But noting many media reports during his Middle East tour had mentioned membership in the Nazi Party's youth wing, Lombardi told reporters in Jerusalem: "The pope was never in the Hitler Youth, never, never, never."
In "Salt of the Earth", a 1996 book of autobiographical and religious reflections based on interviews with German journalist Peter Seewald, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said, however, that he was automatically enrolled into the Hitler Youth.
Asked if he had been a member, he said: "At first we weren't, but when the compulsory Hitler Youth was introduced in 1941, my brother was obliged to join. I was still too young, but later, as a seminarian, I was registered in the HY. As soon as I was out of the seminary, I never went back."
He also said he served on anti-aircraft batteries and was conscripted into the German infantry late in the war.
Lombardi did not say why the Vatican had not issued a denial about membership in the Hitler Youth in the past. Media reports highlighted this issue even before Benedict was elected in 2005, and it regularly appears in articles about him.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin added his own voice Tuesday to the criticism of German-born Pope Benedict XVI for his speech at Israel's Holocaust museum on Monday - the first day of what seems to be turning into a contentious visit to Israel.
Citing Benedict's teenage membership in the Hitler Youth and German military service, Rivlin berated the pope over his address on Monday at Yad Vashem.
"With all due respect to the Holy See, we cannot ignore the burden he bears, as a young German who joined the Hitler Youth and as a person who joined Hitler's army, which was an instrument in the extermination," Rivlin told Israel Radio.
"He came and told us as if he were a historian, someone looking in from the sidelines, about things that should not have happened. And what can you do? He was a part of them," Rivlin said.
Rivlin described Benedict as a "German who joined the Hitler Youth and ... a person who joined Hitler's army".
The Vatican spokesman made a distinction between convinced Hitler Youth activists and members of the anti-aircraft units, omitting the category of involuntary Hitler Youth members to which Benedict has been quoted as saying he belonged.
"The Hitler Youth was a corps of volunteers, fanatically, ideologically for the Nazis," Lombardi said.
The anti-aircraft auxiliary corps the pope was enrolled in towards the end of the war "had absolutely nothing to do with the Hitler Youth and the Nazis and Nazi ideology", he added.
"It is important to say what is true and not to say false things about a very sensitive thing like this," Lombardi said.
Histories of the air-aircraft auxiliary corps, known as the "Flakhelfer", and of the Hitler Youth, describe the auxiliaries as being organised as a unit of the Hitler Youth.
Shortly after his visit to the Yad Vashem memorial, the pope walked out of an interfaith meeting in Jerusalem after a Palestinian Muslim cleric accused Israel of "slaughter."
At the Yad Vashem ceremony, the pope spoke of the "horrific tragedy of the Shoah," the Hebrew term for the Holocaust, but disappointed some Jewish religious leaders who said he should have apologized as a German and a Christian for the genocide.
The speech drew criticism from staff members of the Holocaust memorial, who described it as disappointing and lukewarm. The chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate, Avner Shalev, said he expected the pope, "who is a human being, too," to draw on his personal experience to issue a stronger condemnation of Nazis and Germans, who were not directly mentioned in the speech.
The pope grew up in Nazi Germany and served in both Hitler Youth and the Wehrmacht, before deserting from the army in 1944. Shalev, however, said the speech was "important," especially in its criticism of denial of the Holocaust.
In his speech Monday, the pope spoke at length about the importance of remembering the victims of the Holocaust.
"One can rob a neighbor of possessions, opportunity or freedom. One can weave an insidious web of lies to convince others that certain groups are undeserving of respect. Yet, try as one might, one can never take away the name of a fellow human being," he said.
"May the names of these victims never perish! May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten! And may all people of goodwill remain vigilant in rooting out from the heart of man anything that could lead to tragedies such as this!" he said.
In what appeared to be an attempt to rally to the pope's defense, Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger said he was certain the pontiff subscribed to the prayer hids predecessor John Paul II placed in the Western Wall nine years ago, in which he asked for God's forgiveness for suffering caused to Jews over the centuries.
In the prayer he slotted into a stone crevice of the remnant of the Roman-era Jewish Temple complex, Pope Benedict mentioned in general terms "the suffering and the pain of all your people throughout the world" and called for peace in the Middle East.
The chairman of Yad Vashem, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, himself a Holocaust survivor, complained Monday of the pope's usage of the word "millions" instead of the more specific "six million" when speaking of the Holocaust's Jewish victims, as well as over his use of the word "killed" rather than "murdered."
"There's a dramatic difference between killed and murdered, especially when a speech has gone through so many hands," Lau said.
Lau also said that the speech "didn't have a single word of condolence, compassion or sharing the pain of the Jewish people as such. There was a lot about the pain of humanity, cosmopolitan words," Lau said.
However Lau, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and a former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, also described the speech as "beautiful and well scripted and very Biblical."
The Pope is a very small man trying to fill the very large shoes of his immediate predecessor. He is not succeeding.