Pope Francis makes solemn, silent visit to Auschwitz

Pontiff meets 11 survivors of Nazi death camp and visits cell of St Maximilian Kolbe

Pope Francis walks through Auschwitz’s notorious gate with the sign Arbeit Macht Frei during his visit to the former Nazi death camp near Krakow. Photograph: Reuters/Filippo Monteforte/Pool

Pope Francis walks through Auschwitz’s notorious gate with the sign Arbeit Macht Frei during his visit to the former Nazi death camp near Krakow. Photograph: Reuters/Filippo Monteforte/Pool

 

Pope Francis wrote another important page in his dramatic pontificate when he made a solemn and silent visit to the former Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, near Krakow. There were no speeches and few greetings as the pope made his largely unaccompanied way around the two camps, pausing to pray and reflect.

Fittingly, Francis walked into the Auschwitz 1 camp, under the famous Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work Sets You Free”) gate, on his own, an elderly man in white flowing robes who contrasted sharply with the historical layers of pain, suffering and unspeakable horror all around him.

The pope did many of the things that the millions who visit Auschwitz do. He stooped in front of the wall at Block 11, the place where camp prisoners were often summarily shot. He visited the cell of St Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan friar and Auschwitz inmate who offered his own life in place of another prisoner.

He met 11 Auschwitz survivors, received a candle from one of them, and then kneeled down to pray. After his prayer, Francis signed the Book of Honour, writing just two short phrases: “Oh Lord, have pity on your people. Oh Lord, forgive so much cruelty.”

Second death camp

The Nazis set up the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Oswiecim. At one point in 1943-44, this “factory of death” was killing at the rate of 8,000 a day in crematoria-cum-gas chambers. It took two hours to kill a prisoner and another eight to burn the body.

Here, too, the pope was silent, looking deeply moved as he prayed in front of 23 memorial plaques to the accompaniment of a rabbi singing in Hebrew the 130th De Profundis Psalm, Out of the Depths I Have Cried Unto Thee. After that, Francis briefly met 23 of the “Righteous Among the Nations”, non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Even if this was a deeply felt, deeply moving visit by Francis, not everyone at Auschwitz-Birkenau was impressed. Polish-born death camp survivor Robert Roman Kent told reporters he felt the pope should have said something.

‘Disappointing’

“I am a survivor and I was in Auschwitz. It is irrelevant how long – one minute in Auschwitz was like a month, one day like a year, one week like an eternity. And how many eternities can you live in a lifetime? I don’t know.”

To be fair to Pope Francis, faced with the full horror of the Nazi genocide of the Jews, he has not always been “silent”.

A great evil

Jerusalem

Today and tomorrow the pope will return to the major reason for his four-day visit to Krakow, namely the World Youth Day celebrations.

Having presided over a Way of the Cross commemoration, he faces a busy schedule today when he meets priests and seminarians prior to attending the traditional “sleeping bag” prayer vigil in the Campus Misericordiae south of Krakow.

That same “Field of Mercy” will be the site of tomorrow’s final mass, when Francis may touch on many of the major issues that have dominated his teaching this week, such as immigration, the rich/poor divide, religious freedom and God’s mercy.

He may also announce that the next World Youth Day in three years will be in Panama.