At first, the American-born maestro Gilbert Levine suggested the concert commemorating the Holocaust be held at an outdoor site near Rome. He would invite Pope John Paul II to come as a guest.
But the pope balked. "Isn't it a bit cold there in April?" the pontiff asked.
Levine suggested a concert hall. "Isn't that a bit small?" the pope prodded.
Finally it dawned on Levine. "Do you have an idea?" he asked.
John Paul recalled the concert Levine led on the tenth anniversary of his papacy. It had been held in the great Paul VI Hall next to St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
"Wouldn't that be a grand place?" the pope suggested.
And so the stage was set for the historic Papal Concert to Commemorate the Holocaust that took place last April.
Until that exchange of polite "Vaticanisms" between himself and the pontiff, Levine said in a telephone interview from New York this week, he was not quite sure how much of a personal stamp John Paul would put on the concert Levine had first suggested in the spring of 1991.
When all was said and done, the pope and Levine had organized an event that drew an audience of 7,500 people. It included 22 cardinals, 4 rabbis, Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, and some 200 survivors of the Holocaust, including Henry Friedman of Mercer Island, chairman of the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center.
It was the first time the Vatican had commemorated the Holocaust, the first time a rabbi (Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff of Rome) had co-officiated at a public event there, and the first time Jews and Catholics had prayed together under the Vatican's roof for those who died in the Holocaust, according to concert organizers.
"I am still deeply moved by it six months later," Levine said.
The April 7 concert is now out on compact disc and audiocassette. It will be released on videocassette later this month. It was originally broadcast live in 52 countries and will be aired by some affiliates of the Public Broadcasting Service beginning Oct. 20. (Public-television stations KCTS in Seattle and KBTC in Tacoma already have set their schedules and do not have plans to broadcast the program at this time, according to station spokesmen.)
Levine, 46, a Brooklyn-born Jew who studied music at Julliard, Princeton and Yale and has conducted major symphony orchestras throughout the United States and Europe, said the papal concert was "a singular event."
The pope remembered the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, commiserated with the survivors, stood up to those who would deny the Holocaust happened, saying clearly that it did happen, and sent out a universal message that intolerance must end so that a Holocaust will never happen again, Levine said.
While the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations have been criticized for standing by silently during the Holocaust, Levine said he has adopted the view of his mother-in-law, Margit Raab Kalina, a survivor of Auschwitz who now lives in New York. "She said, `Let us take the hand that is now outstretched from this pope. If a hand is outstretched with such profundity of feeling and sincerity, it has to be grasped.' "
Levine noted John Paul was a young man when the Nazis occupied his native Poland during World War II. He witnessed the destruction of his homeland and saw Jewish friends he had grown up with carted off to concentration camps.
"He abhors not just anti-Semitism, but xenophobia and racial hatred. He sees all those as sources of murderous, inhumane acts," said Levine. In addition to Jews, millions of others, including Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled, dissidents and Catholic and Protestant resisters were killed by the Nazis.
Levine first met the pope after Levine was named music director of the Krakow Philharmonic in the pope's home city in December 1987.
The meeting came about after a long conversation Levine had with Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, archbishop of Krakow. Macharski ended what Levine thought had been a meandering talk with the comment, "You must tell all of this to the Holy Father." Sure, thought Levine, who then took off for a vacation.
When he returned, he was surprised to find a letter asking him to go to Rome and to call a certain number when he arrived. The number turned out to be the line of the pope's private secretary. Levine was to come to the Vatican the next morning.
When Levine met the pope, "He stood up, grabbed my hand and said, `I know your whole story. Let's talk.' " He asked about Levine's experiences in Krakow, about the conductor's Polish-born grandparents and about his mother-in-law, the Auschwitz survivor.
Levine said John Paul has made improved relations between Christians and Jews a major part of his papacy. He went to the Auschwitz concentration camp to pray in 1979, Levine noted. He was the first pope to visit the Rome Synagogue, in 1986, and he blessed a concert of remembrance and reconciliation that Levine conducted in Krakow in 1990, though the pope did not attend that concert.
Levine acknowledged he did not understand nor did he defend the recent papal knighting of former United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, who had been an intelligence officer in a German army unit that deported Jews.
But he said the Catholic Church's recognition of the Holocaust and its recent establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel outweighed the Waldheim controversy.
Friedman, 66, who hid for 18 months in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, said he did not think the Holocaust would have happened if John Paul had been pope during the war.
"I feel very strongly that . . . the Catholic Church would have spoken out. . . . Hitler would not have dared to do what he did," said Friedman.
Friedman urged there be annual Holocaust remembrance services throughout the world. St. James Catholic Cathedral in Seattle and the Mercer Island United Methodist Church have been the sites of such services locally.
"Whoever participates in one of these commemorations can't help but walk away a different person," said Friedman. "When they see injustice, they will not be silent again."
---------------------------------------------------. Hear the concert.
"The Papal Concert to Commemorate the Holocaust" is available on compact disc and audiotape (Justice Records, suggested list price $15.98 and $9.98) and will be out on videotape (Rhino Home Video, suggested list price $24.98) this month. Gilbert Levine leads the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London in performances of Max Bruch's "Kol Nidre," Ludwig van Beethoven's "Symphony No. 9, Third Movement," Franz Schubert's "Psalm 92," and Leonard Bernstein's "Symphony No. 3 Kaddish" and "Chichester Psalms." The CD includes Pope John Paul II's address at the concert; the videotape includes testimonies of Auschwitz survivors.