Silence as Pope Francis visits Auschwitz death camp

Silence reigned as Pope Francis visited the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz on Friday, an event seen by many as the emotional highlight of his trip to Poland.

The pope bowed his head as he entered the camp through its infamous gate, emblazoned with the words Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets You Free), before finding a bench between the camp's surviving buildings and sitting in silent prayer for about 15 minutes.

The Vatican had said in advance that Francis would visit the camp in silence, with no public prayers or services. The decision was met with wide approval from Jewish organizations, which called it appropriate.

Michael Schudrich, Poland's chief rabbi, said ahead of the visit that it is not unusual for people to discover "a new level of pain" when visiting Auschwitz. He noted that many visitors find themselves speechless when they first see the site.

More than 1.1 million people - most of them Jews - died in the complex of camps Nazi Germany set up near the Polish town of Oswiecim during World War II.

After his silent contemplation, the pope then met with several Holocaust survivors, exchanging a few words with them before heading to Auschwitz's Death Wall, the site where people were executed with rifles. There, he lit a candle.

He then headed to the site's Block 11, which contains the cell where Franciscan monk Maximilian Kolbe died during his internment at the camp. The pope sat in the dimly lit room before leaving Auschwitz, walking back out through the gate.

During his visit, he signed the guest book, writing: "Lord, have pity on your people. Lord, forgive so much cruelty," according to an image posted on Twitter by the Auschwitz museum.

He then headed to the nearby Birkenau camp. Auschwitz and Birkenau were both part of the same complex during Nazi Germany's rule of Poland: Auschwitz was primarily a labour camp, while Birkenau was for mass killings. More than 1.1 million died there.

Both were part of the Nazi's scheme to purge Europe of people it deemed inferior, including homosexuals, Roma and socialists, though the vast majority were Jews.

At Birkenau, Francis met with people who had tried to rescue Jews from the Holocaust, along with more survivors.

Survivors who met with the pope said they were happy with the visit.

"I found the visiting touching and moving. His gaze was very deep, he took time for each and every one of us," Eva Umlauf told dpa after meeting with Francis.

Others were less overwhelmed.

"Whether he says something or not, I'm not a religious person, so it doesn't matter one way or another to me," said Roza Krzywoblocka-Laurow. However, she quickly added: "But, of course, it is, naturally, important when someone like the pope commemorates what happened here with his presence."

Maria Augustyn, whose parents hid a Jewish couple from the Nazis, thus risking their own lives, said it was obvious the pope was moved.

"He didn't have to say anything. You could tell that he was touched. I think that he's a very sensitive person."

Roman Kent said it was important for such meetings to happen as many more times as possible, so that the world would never forget the horrors of the Nazi regime.

"We have to bear witness, but 90 per cent of us disappeared up the chimney as white-grey smoke along with their testimonies," said Kent, who is also president of the International Auschwitz Committee. He said the pope's silence was a "nice gesture."

Francis is the third pope to visit Auschwitz. His two immediate predecessors - John Paul II and Benedict XVI - also visited.

The pope is in Poland as part of the World Youth Day celebrations, a week-long event that is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of young Catholics from across the world before it ends on Sunday.

The pope is expected to rejoin the festivities in nearby Krakow after his visit to Auschwitz.

Last update: Fri, 29/07/2016 - 17:44
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