AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU, Poland — Pope Francis paid a somber visit in silence to the Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau on Friday where he heard harrowing accounts from survivors and rescuers, in a private meeting organized by Poland’s chief rabbi.
Former prisoners of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland were embraced by the Argentine pontiff Friday as he visited the concentration camp to pray for the 1.1 million people, most of them Jewish, who were murdered at the site during World War II.
Francis entered the camp on foot, walking slowly in his white robes beneath the notorious gate at Auschwitz that bears the cynical words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work sets you free).
Among the 11 survivors he met briefly was a woman in her mid-90s who helped deliver babies born to Auschwitz women; another, 101, played the violin in an orchestra the death camp.
Francis moved on to nearby Birkenau, a sprawling complex where people were murdered in factory-like fashion in its gas chambers. There he greeted 25 Holocaust rescuers, including a woman who as a child helped her mother smuggle in bread in their handbags to Jews forced by Nazi occupiers to stay in Warsaw’s ghetto.
Altogether, it was a deeply contemplative and private visit of nearly two hours that Francis passed in total silence, except for a few words he exchanged with the survivors and rescuers.
Vatican and Polish church officials said Francis wanted to express his sorrow in silence at the site, mourning the victims in quiet prayer and meditation. However, he did express his feelings, writing in the Auschwitz memorial’s guest book in Spanish: “Lord, have mercy on your people! Lord, forgiveness for so much cruelty!” He then signed with his name in Latin, “Franciscus” and added the date “29.7.2016.”
“I feel like the Pope came especially to see me,” said Janina Iwanska, 86, who was brought to the camp as a teenager following the failed Warsaw Uprising against Adolf Hitler’s forces in 1944.
Fellow survivor Alojzy Fros, who turns 100 this year, said the memories of death were seared into his mind.
“Through an open door I saw naked bodies piled up like logs about a meter high,” he told AFP. “I’ll never forget it.”
Lidia Maksymowicz, 75, said on Polish TVN it was a “great event” for her to meet Francis.
“It is an extraordinary thing that this pope, who is sensitive to human poverty and humiliation, was able to see this place where people were brought to the lowest levels of degradation,” she said.
She was two years old when brought to the camp and was 5 when the camp was liberated by the Soviet Red Army in 1945.
With her petite figure and halo of white hair, Helena Dunicz Niwinska, at 101, was the eldest survivor to meet Francis. While a prisoner she had played violin in the Auschwitz orchestra.
She ended up in the camp after being arrested in what was then the Polish city of Lwow — now Lviv in Ukraine — along with her mother, who died at Auschwitz.
Later Dunicz Niwinska was transferred to the camp in Ravensbruck during a “death march” — forced movements of prisoners used by the Nazis to weaken and kill off as many of their victims as possible.
“The pope is too good,” said fellow survivor Walentyna Nikodem, who was born in 1922.
“Love for one’s neighbor is one thing, but sinners must be punished. When someone kills us, we have to defend ourselves,” she said, questioning the Christian axiom of responding to evil with forgiveness.
Nikodem’s mother was executed in the camp in revenge for her father having killed a Gestapo policeman.
Francis prayed near the ruins of a crematorium blown up by the Nazis as they fled the camp, before meeting Christian Poles who risked their lives during the war to help hide and protect Jews.
The group, recognized by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum as “Righteous Among the Nations,” included Maria Augustyn, whose family hid a Jewish couple behind a wardrobe for years.
Anna Bando helped rescue an orphan from the Warsaw ghetto and gave several Jews forged “Aryan” papers, while Witold Lisowski saved a young man who had managed to escape from a concentration camp transport.
He fed, clothed and protected him for two years, first at his house then in a hiding place in a nearby wood.
Fellow “Righteous Among the Nations” Ryszard Zielinski told AFP the encounter with Francis had meant a lot.
“We shook hands and he looked me in the eyes in a lovely way and gave me a good memory to take away.”
Those who helped people persecuted by the Nazis sometimes paid the ultimate price.
Catholic priest Stanislaw Ruszala, who read a Hebrew prayer in Polish during Francis’s visit, hails from the town of Markowa where a family was wiped out for sheltering Jews.
Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma, their seven children and the Jews they were hiding were all butchered. Wiktoria, who was seven months pregnant at the time, had started giving birth before she was executed, the Vatican said.