This morning, Pope Francis walked in silence and painful reflection through the infamous main entrance gate to Auschwitz, the former Nazi concentration camp.
He walked alone under the arch on which are written the cynical words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“work sets you free”).
His eyes looked full of pain as he entered the former death camp. Here, and in the nearby, much larger extermination camp at Birkenau—which he visited afterwards—some 1.5 million people were put to death between June 14, 1940, and Jan. 27, 1945. The overwhelming majority of them were Jews, but there were also 150,000 Polish political prisoners, 23,000 Roma and Sinti people (sometimes called gypsies), 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 400 Jehovah Witnesses and thousands of others from different nationalities.
He went to the “Wall of Death,” where the Nazis executed thousands of prisoners by firing squad. He prayed in silence in front of the wall, and then touched it.
He prayed for a long time in silence at the roll-call square where so many were hanged and where St. Maximillian Kolbe, a Polish priest, stepped forward and offered his own life to save a married man and father from execution.
Francis visited the death cells and prayed alone in the one where the Franciscan priest, St. Maximillian Kolbe, died of starvation 75 years ago. When he came out from the death chamber, he went and wrote two sentences in Spanish in the “Book of Honor,” which the Vatican translated as follows:
During his visit, Francis met with 12 survivors from the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps and greeted each one individually. The oldest—over 100 years old—was a Jewish-Polish violinist, Helena Dunicz Niwinska, who was arrested at the age of 28 and forced to play in the Auschwitz orchestra. The youngest survivor, Peter Rauch, was only 4 years old when he was arrested and taken to Auschwitz with his five sisters and his parents.
From Auschwitz, the pope traveled to the nearby, much larger camp at Birkenau (also called Auschwitz II). The Nazis opened this camp in 1941 and built four gas chambers or crematoriums here in which men, women and children were put to death.
This morning, Pope Francis went through the main entrance and then boarded an electric golf cart and rode slowly to the Monument of the Victims of the Nations. He drove parallel to the railway track on which trains from all over Europe brought Jews to this death camp during World War II. On the return flight from his June 24-26 trip to Armenia, Francis recalled that in those years the Allies actually knew about these trains but for various reasons decided not to bomb the railway tracks.
When he arrived at the end of the railway track where the trains stopped, Francis got out of the electric golf cart, and, after being greeted by the Polish prime minister, he went to the memorial plaques in front of the Monument to the Victims of the Nations. There are 23 such plaques and each one bears an inscription written in one of the 23 languages used by those who died in this place.
The Argentine pope walked slowly, head bowed, in silent prayer, in front of each plaque. After reaching the last one, he stood in front of the monument and placed a lit candle there. He stood there in silence, facing the monument for a long time, as a Jewish rabbi sang Psalm 130 in Hebrew, and a priest read it in Polish.
When this ended, Pope Francis went to greet 25 persons called “The Just of the Nations,” people who had saved Jews from death at great risk to their own lives during World War II. The group included a Polish teacher, Anna Bando nee Stupnicka, who together with her 12-year-old daughter saved an orphaned 11-year-old Jewish girl from death. Another of the just was Sister Janina Kierstan, representing the Franciscan Sisters of the Family, and Sister Matylda Getter, who saved 500 Jewish children and young people as well as 250 elderly people from death during the war. After greeting each of them, Francis returned by helicopter to Krakow, about 40 miles away.
Francis was the third pope to come here. St. John Paul II, who had many Jewish friends as a young boy, came here on June 7, 1979, during his first visit to Poland as pope. He had visited the place many times during his life, but he insisted on coming as the first Polish pope. After his visit he celebrated Mass in a nearby convent, and delivered a profoundly moving homily, but some did not like that he celebrated the Mass in that location, even though it was outside the camp.
Benedict XVI, came here, too, on May 28, 2006, on his first and only visit to Poland as pope. “I am here today as a son of the German people,” he said, and because of this “I could not but come here.” At the end of the visit, he delivered a talk at Birkenau but it upset some Jewish organizations because, among other things, he did not mention the figure of six million Jews and made no reference to anti-Semitism. The reaction was so strong that within a week he had to rectify this in another talk back in Rome.
Pope Francis, for his part, opted for total silence during his two-hour-long visit. He believes that when one is faced with great evil such as what happened here, one should remain in silence, respectful silence, keep the memory alive, and weep.