Pope Francis paid a sombre and moving visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp this morning where he prayed at execution spots and appealed for God’s mercy and forgiveness. His trip to the former Nazi concentration camp - where more than a million people, mostly Jews, were killed during the Second World War - took place in almost complete silence. Instead, the Pope left a written message in a book of remembrance which stated simply: “Lord, have mercy on your people! Lord, forgiveness for so much cruelty!”
But what was lacking in words was made up for in symbolic moments including an encounter with ten of those who were imprisoned in the camp and the chanting by a Rabbi of Psalm 130 which begins with the line: “out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.”
On a sunny morning Francis, who is the third Pope to visit Auschwitz, walked slowly through the notorious gate of the camp under the Nazi slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Makes you Free”) before sitting down to pray.
He then moved over to meet with a line of survivors with Francis embracing each person in turn and listening solemnly to what they had to say. One of them, Eva Tumlauf, had been brought Auschwitz as a two-year-old child while another, Marian Majerowicz, lost both his parents and a younger brother in the camp. Following the encounter the Pope lit a lamp he had given to the Auschwitz museum and prayed in front of a wall where Nazis undertook executions by firing squad before visiting the cells in Block 11 known as the “block of death.”
It was here that prisoners were kept in appalling conditions sometimes being forced to stand all night in cramped conditions following a day of hard labour. Among them was Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan friar, who volunteered to die in place of a German Jewish man and today the Pope visited his cell to spend a sustained period there in silent prayer.
PICTURES - Francis becomes the third pope to visit the Birkenau/Auschwitz camp; Arbeit Macht Frei. Work Makes you Free; The pope conducted his visit in silent contemplation
After his time in the cells, the Pope travelled the short distance to Birkenau, the site of the Nazis’ extermination camp. Here he prayed in front of memorial plaques to victims and listened to Psalm 130 being chanted. Representatives of a Polish parish that had given shelter to Jews during World War II were also there and Francis greeted a group “Righteous among the nations” - those who risked their lives to help Jews during that period.
Francis’ visit today is the first by a Pope who had not lived in Europe through the Second World War which contrasts with his two immediate predecessors who had personal connections to the site. The Polish John Paul II lived through the horrors of the period in his home country and had helped Jews escape from the Nazi regime. His visit to Auschwitz in 1979 - a papal first - was an important step in the Church’s reformed relationship with Jews during the second half of the twentieth century.
PICTURES - The notorious railway gates of the Nazi concentration camp in the morning mist; the Pope visited what is left of the gas chambers; and met Catholics who helped Jews avoid the chambers
Meanwhile, Benedict XVI, who went to the site in 2006, was a German who had been conscripted into the Hitler Youth as a teenager.
This Pope’s visit is, therefore, a sign of the global significance of Auschwitz which has now become a major tourist attraction with over 1.5 million visitors a year. His trip to the Nazi concentration camps is also a historical reminder by the Pope of mercy of what happens when mercy is eradicated. This is a message Francis will want to tell the world, one which he says is now at “war with itself.”