Pope walks alone through Auschwitz

July 29, 2016  

Pope Francis on Friday walked alone through the notorious wrought-iron “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free) gate as he visited the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Free for once of his security entourage or cardinals, he sat on a bench among the trees and bowed his head in prayer, remaining at length in silent contemplation before meeting Holocaust survivors.

“Lord, have mercy on your people. Lord, forgive so much cruelty,” the pope wrote in a memorial book.

In front of the death wall where the Nazis executed thousands of people, he tenderly kissed former prisoners.

Among them was Helena Dunicz Niwinska, a 101-year-old woman who played the violin in the Auschwitz orchestra, as well as inmates who worked at the camp hospital or who were there as children.

The Pope lit a candle in front of the death wall before visiting the cell of Polish priest and saint Maximilian Kolbe, who died at Auschwitz after taking the place of a condemned man.

He cut a solitary figure as he knelt in the dark, underground cell where the priest was starved then executed.

The Argentine later lead prayers for the 1.1 million people who were murdered at the camp as part of Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” of genocide against European Jews which claimed six million lives in World War II.

The Pope had said that rather than making a speech, he would stand in silence to reflect on the horrors committed.

“Cruelty did not end in Auschwitz and Birkenau”, he said in an address to pilgrims in Krakow later Friday.

“How is it possible that we men, created in God’s image, are able to do such things?”

He said at the camp he saw “the cruelty of 70 years ago, how people were shot, beaten to death or gassed”.

But “today, in many parts of the world… the same things happen,” he said.

The pope travelled the two miles (three kilometres) to Birkenau, the main extermination site, and was driven alongside train tracks which allowed prisoners to be transported directly to the gas chambers and crematoria.

He prayed near the ruins of a crematorium blown up by the Nazis as they evacuated the camp, as Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich sang a Jewish prayer for the dead in Hebrew.

Some 25 Christian Poles who risked their lives during the war to help hide and protect Jews — a group recognised by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum as “Righteous Among the Nations” — also met Francis.

The group included Maria Augustyn, whose family hid a Jewish couple behind a wardrobe for years, and Anna Bando, who helped rescue an orphan from the Warsaw ghetto and gave several Jews forged “Aryan” papers.

More than 100,000 non-Jewish Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, homosexuals and anti-Nazi partisans also died at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in occupied Poland. The Soviet Red Army liberated it in 1945.

The Pope’s visit to Auschwitz was announced last month. Both of his predecessors, Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul visited Auschwitz during their pontificates.

Pope Francis visited Rome’s synagogue several months ago and said the Holocaust, in which some six million Jews were killed, should remind everyone of the need for the “maximum vigilance” in the defense of human rights.

AFP contributed to this report.

(Arutz Sheva’s North American desk is keeping you updated until the start of Shabbat in New York. The time posted automatically on all Arutz Sheva articles, however, is Israeli time.)

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