[Austen Ivereigh] Pope Francis this morning visited the Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau to pray silently in a place which has become the icon of human depravity.
After passing through the notorious main gate bearing the cynical words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free”) he prayed silently for more than 15 minutes, and kissed one of the wooden beams in the death camp where over a million people, mostly Jews, were put to death by industrial methods.
Then he met with several survivors, greeting them one by one, shaking their hands and kissing them on the cheeks, and receiving in some cases gifts from them.
He then walked slowly to the Death Wall, where prisoners were executed, and laid a large white candle there.
From there he entered Block 11, to enter the underground prison cell that once housed St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Catholic friar who in August 1944 offered his own life in place of another man’s.
This year is the 75th anniversary of his sacrifice, which has become a symbol of the mercy and love that are possible in such circumstances.
There, in the cell, kneeling in almost total darkness, the Pope prayed again for 15 minutes, his white cassock visible only by the thin shafts of sun through a tiny window, a symbol of light in a place of utter darkness.
Afterwards he signed the guest book, writing in Spanish: “Lord, have mercy on your people! Lord, forgive us for so much cruelty!”
Then he was transported the two miles to Birkenau, the other half of the Nazi death camp that was built later to cope with the vast numbers being brought to Auschwitz as Hitler rushed to complete the ‘final solution’ under the cover of war.
He entered through the main entrance, parallel to the rail tracks that had brought so many hundreds of thousands of people to their end.
About a thousand people were waiting for him, among them camp survivors as well as Polish Catholics who had helped and saved Jews, often at great risk and cost, known as the “Righteous among the Nations”.
At the monument to the victims of nations, Francis looked at the plaques that commemorate the victims in 23 different languages, and again prayed in silence.
After greeting the 25 Righteous Among the Nations, Francis clasped his hands and bent his head as Psalm 130 (“Out of the Depths …”) was read first by Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, and then by a priest in Polish.
Today puts the spotlight on suffering and the mercy of God visible in the midst of it. This afternoon Pope Francis will visit a hospital for sick children before leading a Via Crucis tonight.