Pope Francis visits the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, July 29.

CNS PHOTO | GRZEGORZ, POOL

Pope Francis visits the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, July 29.

August 15, 2016
JUNNO AROCHO ESTEVES
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
Catholic News Service

Sitting with head bowed and eyes closed, Pope Francis paid silent tribute to the victims of one of the worst atrocities of history.

The pope arrived July 29 at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, an area now blanketed by green fields and empty barracks lined by barbed wire fences, remnants of a horror that remains embedded in history.

Used by the Nazis from 1940 to 1945, the camp was the site of the mass extermination of more than one million Jews, and also Roma, Polish citizens and Soviet prisoners of war.

Among those killed were St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Conventual Franciscan friar, and Edith Stein, a Jewish philosopher who converted to Catholicism and became a Carmelite nun, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

Pope Francis touches the death wall at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp on July 29.

CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING

Pope Francis touches the death wall at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp on July 29.

Crossing the gate inscribed with the infamous motto "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work sets you free"), the pope quietly sat on a small bench for 10 minutes with his head bowed, occasionally glancing somberly around before closing his eyes in silent prayer.

He stood up, and slowly walked up to the wooden post of one of the barracks, reverently touching and kissing it.

The pope then made his way to Block 11 to greet a dozen survivors of the camp, including a 101-year-old violinist, who survived by being in the camp orchestra. Pope Francis greeted each survivor individually, gently grabbing their hands and kissing their cheeks.

Among the survivors was Naftali Furst of Bratislava, Slovakia, who was deported to Auschwitz and was evacuated to Buchenwald in January 1945 before his liberation.

Furst, who now lives in Israel, gave the pope a photograph showing him and other inmates imprisoned in the Auschwitz barracks.

Pope Francis also signed a book for Furst before he made his way toward the "death wall" where thousands of prisoners were lined up and shot in the back of the head before their bodies were sent to the crematoriums.

Candle in hand, the pope lit an oil lamp in front of the wall, before praying and laying his hand on the wall. He then turned around and entered the barracks of Block 11.

Also known as "the death block" because the Nazis used it to inflict torture, it houses the cell where St. Maximilian Kolbe spent his final hours, starved and dehydrated before being given a lethal injection of carbolic acid.

Pope Francis entered the darkened cell, illuminated by a faint light from the corridor, revealing a candle, an engraved plaque marking the site of the Franciscan friar's death, and countless words - even a cross - etched on the walls by those who spent their final moments in the starvation cell.

Once again Pope Francis sat in silence with his head bowed. Alone in the cell for eight minutes, he occasionally looked up to contemplate his surroundings.

Outside the cell, he signed the visitors' book, writing a simple message: "Lord, have mercy on your people. Lord, forgive so much cruelty."

Pope Francis then made his way to the Holocaust memorial at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, driven in an electric cart on a path parallel to the railroad tracks that carried countless men, women and children to their doom.

It now leads to a monument that honours their memory.

CREMATORIUMS

To the left of the memorial lay the ruins of one of four crematoriums used to incinerate the bodies of those who died of disease or starvation or who were executed in the two gas chambers housed within the extermination camp.

The pope approached the memorial to the victims, lined with 23 plaques, each inscribed with a message in a different language: "Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe."

Passing each plaque, Pope Francis reached the end of the monument where he set a candle in a large glass bowl and once again stood in silence, clasping his hands together over his chest in prayer.

While he prayed, the voice of Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Joseph Schudrich echoed Psalm 130 in Hebrew throughout the camp. The psalm begins with a cry to God: "From the depths I have cried out to you, O Lord."

(For a video on the pope's Auschwitz visit, see www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6dfxhM386c)