Pope Francis walked alone through the notorious wrought-iron “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes you free”) gates at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Friday, at the start of a historic visit to the former Nazi death camp.
His head bowed, the pope prayed in silent contemplation before meeting Holocaust survivors in front of the infamous Auschwitz Death Wall, where inmates, chiefly Polish resistance fighters, were executed. He shook survivors’ hands, kissed them on the cheeks and stroked the heads of some.
Among those he met was Helena Dunicz Niwinska, a 101-year-old woman who played the violin in the Auschwitz orchestra, as well as survivors who worked at the camp hospital or who were there as children.
One woman kissed his hand. He also took time to exchange a few words with the survivors, although what they said was not audible.
Some of the survivors made Francis offerings that were linked to their suffering. One held a copy of a black-and-white picture, indicating he was in it.
Earlier, some of the former camp inmates said they were excited about meeting the pope, a great authority to them.
“This is a huge thing for me,” said 100-year-old Alojzy Fros.
Francis lit a candle in front of the death wall, bowing his head in prayer before visiting the cell of Polish priest and saint Maximilian Kolbe, who died at Auschwitz after taking the place of a condemned man.
As he prayed in Kolbe’s dark underground prison cell, a few shafts of light from a tiny window cast light only on the white-clad figure of the pope, who knelt for many minutes before he crossed himself and rose to his feet.
The visit falls on the 75th anniversary of the day Kolbe was condemned to death.
The pope then left Auschwitz and traveled the two miles (3 kilometers) to the nearby Birkenau camp, the main extermination site, where he was driven along tracks laid in 1944 to allow trains of prisoners to be transported right to the gas chambers and crematoria.
He was to meet there with 25 Christian Poles who risked their own lives to help Jews during the German occupation of their country during World War II and lead prayers for the 1.1 million mostly Jewish victims murdered at the camp, just a stone’s throw from the ruins of one of the crematoria blown up by the Nazis as they evacuated the camp.
Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum recognizes 6,620 Poles as so-called “Righteous Among the Nations,” more than from any other country — a reflection of the fact that Poland was home to the largest Jewish community in Europe before the Holocaust.
Ahead of his visit Francis said that rather than making a speech, he would stand in silence to reflect on the horrors committed and let his tears flow.
After arriving Wednesday in Poland — a heartland of Nazi Germany’s atrocities — the pontiff said the world had been plunged into a piecemeal third world war.
He has repeatedly denounced those committing crimes in the name of religion, after Europe suffered a string of deadly jihadist attacks.
The pontiff has forged ever-closer ties between the Catholic Church and Jews since his election in 2013.
As the morning rain subsided and the sun began to shine, around 200 people gathered by a big screen in Birkenau to await his arrival, among them the group of elderly Poles who risked their lives to help hide and protect Jews during the Holocaust.
‘Scream against injustice’
Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich welcomed the pontiff’s intention to remain silent during his visit to the camp, saying that “often people go to Auschwitz… and they are silent [about the horrors] for the rest of their lives.
“Instead, once we leave Birkenau we must spend the rest of our lives screaming, yelling and fighting all kinds of injustices,” he said Thursday.
Among the group of Poles who risked their lives to help Jews was 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.
The Holocaust is an extremely delicate subject in Poland, where locals fueled by anti-Semitism were accused of butchering Jews or delivering them to the Nazis.
Those who did help sometimes paid the ultimate price.
A Hebrew prayer for the dead was to be read aloud in Polish by Stanislaw Ruszala, Catholic parish priest of the town of Markowa, where a family was wiped out after they were discovered to be sheltering Jews.
Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma and their seven children were butchered. Wiktoria, who was seven months’ pregnant at the time, had started giving birth before she was executed, according to the Vatican.
More than 100,000 non-Jewish Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, gays and anti-Nazi partisans also died at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in occupied Poland. The Soviet Red Army liberated it in 1945.
Two of the pope’s predecessors also visited the camp in the past: John Paul II — a former archbishop of Krakow — in 1979 and Benedict XVI in 2006.