The head of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum met with Pope Francis in the Vatican on Thursday, in the first meeting of its kind, a museum spokesperson said.
The chairman of the museum, Dani Dayan, had a rare “private audience” with the pontiff, according to the spokesperson. Israel’s Ambassador to the Vatican Rafi Schutz also attended the meeting.
The discussion focused primarily on ongoing collaborative efforts by Yad Vashem and the Catholic Church on “Holocaust remembrance, education and documentation, and to discuss efforts to fight antisemitism and racism worldwide,” Yad Vashem said in a statement.
Though three popes have visited Yad Vashem since the site was opened in 1953, including Pope Francis in 2014, this was the first time that a chairman of the museum has met with the pontiff in the Vatican.
“The very fact that I was granted this private audience with His Holiness Pope Francis — the first time a Chairman of Yad Vashem has been given the opportunity to meet with a Pope in the Vatican — highlights the importance that the head of the Catholic Church places on Holocaust remembrance and the fight against antisemitism,” Dayan said in a statement ahead of the meeting.
“During our meeting today, along with various issues I raised, I proposed to the Pope all of Yad Vashem’s expertise and influence, our abilities, materials and scholarship in order to address these issues related to the Holocaust and the Church in particular, and on the worldwide stage in general,” he said.
Yad Vashem proposed the meeting a few months ago, speaking about it first with the Vatican’s representative in Jerusalem. “They responded in the affirmative,” a spokesperson for the museum said.
“We were very pleased with the Vatican’s response, granting Dani Dayan not only an audience but a private audience with his holiness,” the spokesman said.
At the end of the meeting, Dayan also extended an invitation from President Isaac Herzog to Pope Francis to again visit Israel.
The meeting comes amid growing scrutiny regarding the Vatican’s actions during the Holocaust, after Pope Francis opened the church’s archives from that time to researchers two years ago.
Since then, a number of books and articles have been written about this period, which have painted then-pope Pius XII in a somewhat conflicted light. For instance, archival documents presented by Brown University historian David Kertzer show that Pius XII explicitly called for the Vatican newspaper to refrain from mentioning or denouncing Nazi atrocities, even when Jews were rounded up outside the Vatican walls and shipped off to Auschwitz to be murdered.
At the same time, Kertzer found large amounts of documentation showing the Vatican worked frantically to find Jews who had converted or were products of mixed Jewish-Catholic marriages in order to try to save them.
Since the archives were opened, researchers from Yad Vashem have been working to “get the lay of the land and see what information is in these archives,” the museum spokesman said.
“Hopefully, this will shed light on the actions of the Vatican during the Holocaust. This pope is very upfront about addressing the past,” the spokesman said.
He added that Dayan thanked the pope for opening the archive.
At the end of the meeting, Dayan presented Pope Francis with a replica of a painting depicting the Ten Commandments from a synagogue in what is now Chernivtsi, Ukraine, but which was still part of Romania during the war.
“The Ten Commandments are written on the tablets at the base of flames of fire, topped by a crown adorned with a Star of David. The Tablets of the Covenant represent the eternal Judeo-Christian values, and the plaque model is therefore a poignant gift from a representative of the Jewish people to the Pope,” Yad Vashem said in a statement.