Vatican plays down pope's Hitler Youth past

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Vatican played down Pope Benedict’s teenage membership of the Hitler Youth Tuesday after it was highlighted by Jewish critics of remarks he made about the Holocaust during his continuing visit to Israel.

An official spokesman withdrew an initial statement that the German-born pope had “never, never, never” been in the Hitler Youth after reporters pointed out that Benedict himself had said he was -- in a 1996 book on the then cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger.

Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, revised his statement to say that the pope had been signed up against his will and did not take an active part in the Nazi Youth movement.

“He was enrolled involuntarily into the Hitler Youth but he had no active participation,” Lombardi said. “The Hitler Youth is not a significant experience in his life because he was not an active participant. It was just something that was done.”

The speaker of Israel’s parliament, in some of the strongest criticism of the pope’s speech Monday at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, described him as a “German who joined the Hitler Youth and ... a person who joined Hitler’s army.”

Many Israelis felt the pope, who spoke of never forgetting the “horrific tragedy of the Shoah,” could have displayed more personal emotion over his nation’s genocide against the Jews.

In “Salt of the Earth,” a 1996 book of reflections based on interviews with German journalist Peter Seewald, the pope, now 82, was asked if he had been in the Hitler Youth. He replied:

“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 said he also served on anti-aircraft batteries and was conscripted into the infantry late in the war. Histories of the time say teenagers conscripted as anti-aircraft auxiliaries, or “Flakhelfer,” from 1943 were formally part of the Hitler Youth.

Reporting by Philip Pullella, Jeffrey Heller and Tom Heneghan, writing by Alastair Macdonald