Pope Francis remembers Auschwitz victims on Poland visit

By The Citizen
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Pope Francis paid silent tribute to the victims of Auschwitz on Friday, becoming the third pontiff in a row to visit the largest and most notorious Nazi concentration camp.

The pope walked unaccompanied through the entrance gate of the camp, passing under the arch bearing the infamous phrase, 'Arbeit macht frei,' German for 'Work sets you free.'

He then rode an electric vehicle to the spot in the camp where St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest, volunteered to take the place of a condemned prisoner. Pope Francis sat alone for nearly 15 minutes in silent prayer and then walked to observe the gallows where prisoners were hanged and a courtyard where inmates were executed. There, he met a group of Holocaust survivors, one of them now more than 100 years old. The pontiff, visibly moved, stopped to kiss them and give each a rosary.

One survivor handed the pope a white candle. In a simple ceremony, Pope Francis walked to the so-called 'death wall,' where the Nazis executed prisoners and deposited the candle.

He proceeded to cell 18 of Block 11, the 'starvation cell' where Kolbe died on Aug 14, 1941. St. John Paul II proclaimed Kolbe a saint in 1982. In semi-darkness, Pope Francis sat alone for five minutes to pray before an image of the saint. On the walls of the cell, prisoners had etched messages, including an image of a cross.

The pope then visited Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II, the largest section of the death camp complex. There, before a group of about 1,000 guests, he prayed before a monument with inscriptions in 23 languages commemorating the range of nationalities of victims.

As he prayed, the chief rabbi of Poland chanted in Hebrew the 130th psalm, which begins: 'Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord,' followed by another chant to commemorate the dead. The Pope afterward met two dozen 'righteous gentiles,' non-Jews who had helped protect Jews from the Nazis.

Before leaving Auschwitz, the Argentina-born pope signed the book of honor. He wrote in Spanish, 'Lord, have mercy on your people! Lord, forgiveness for so much cruelty!'

Catholic popes have had warm relations with the Jewish community since Pope John Paul, who had grown up with friends from Poland's large prewar Jewish community, made a concerted outreach effort, becoming the first pontiff to visit Auschwitz in 1979.

Before his visit, Pope Francis highlighted his intention to keep the commemoration simple. 'I would like to go to that place of horror without speeches,' he told reporters last month. 'Alone, to enter, to pray…and may the Lord give me the grace to weep.'

One of the survivors at the Birkenau ceremony was Lydia Maximovic, a 75-year-old Christian who was brought to the camp from the then-Soviet Union with her mother when she was three years old. Ms. Maximovic, who still bore a tattoo with her prisoner number, said she had been selected for medical experiments conducted by Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor known for his experiments on humans during the war.

'Today the barracks are nothing like they were years ago,' said Ms. Maximovic, who was reunited with her mother as an adult. 'There was human excrement everywhere. There were no toilets or clean water.'

She said the pope's visit was important because it helped ensure the world wouldn’t forget the Nazi atrocities and that similar horrors wouldn’t happen again. 'The most important people must come here to see what happened,' she said.

About the pope's decision not to speak, Ms. Maximovic said, 'this place should be a place of silence because what can we say when we know what happened here?'

In May 2014, Pope Francis visited Jerusalem's Yad Vashem memorial to victims of the Holocaust, where he greeted half a dozen survivors, kissing their hands to honor them. In his remarks, he prayed: 'Grant us the grace to be ashamed of what we men have done.'

Pope Francis, 79, has a long history of good relations with Jews in his native Buenos Aires, the city with the largest Jewish community in the Southern Hemisphere. As archbishop there, he celebrated Rosh Hashana and Hanukkah in local synagogues and co-wrote a book with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who accompanied him on his visit to Auschwitz.

Touching on one of the most sensitive points in Catholic-Jewish relations, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio also called for the Vatican to open its archives from the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, to help clarify whether the wartime pope should have said or done more to oppose the Holocaust. That section of the archives has still not been opened to scholars.

About 1.5 million people were killed at Auschwitz, including 1.1 million Jews and 140,000 Polish Christians. Pope Benedict visited Auschwitz in 2006.

In the afternoon, the pope visits a children's hospital in Krakow and will pray the stations of the cross with young people. The pope will preside over World Youth Day over the weekend and wrap up his five-day visit to Poland on Sunday. The visit is the pope's first-ever trip to the predominantly Catholic country. – WSJ.