Pope Francis walks alone through horrors of Auschwitz
Pope Francis walks through a gate with the words "Arbeit macht frei" (Work sets you free) at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, July 29, 2016. REUTERS photoPope Francis on July 29 walked alone through the notorious wrought-iron “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate as he visited the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Free for once of his security entourage or cardinals, he sat on a bench among the trees and bowed his head in prayer, remaining at length in silent contemplation before meeting Holocaust survivors.
In front of the death wall where the Nazis summarily executed thousands of people by firing squad, he tenderly kissed the former prisoners.
Among them was Helena Dunicz Niwinska, a 101-year-old woman who played the violin in the Auschwitz orchestra, as well as inmates who worked at the camp hospital or who were there as children.
“It was very moving,” 86-year-old survivor Janina Iwanska told AFP after meeting Francis. “I wanted to kneel before him, but he took me in his arms and kissed my cheeks.”
Fellow survivor Alojzy Fros, who is 99, still remembered his arrival at the camp.
“Just after I arrived, through an open door I saw naked bodies piled up like logs about a meter high,” he told AFP. “I’ll never forget it.”
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.
The visit falls on the 75th anniversary of the day Kolbe was condemned to death.
Francis cut a solitary figure in the dark, underground cell where the priest was starved then executed.
The Argentine later lead prayers for the 1.1 million people, most of them Jewish, who were murdered at the camp as part of Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” of genocide against European Jews which claimed six million lives in World War II.
“Lord, have mercy on your people. Lord, forgive so much cruelty,” Francis wrote in the memorial book.
He had said that rather than making a speech, he would stand in silence to reflect on the horrors committed and let his tears flow.
As he arrived July 27 in Poland - the 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 a string of deadly jihadist attacks in Europe.