x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 August 2017

Pope Francis is silent at Auschwitz “because there are no words”

Pope Francis  walks through the entrance of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland  on a visit to the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau 29 July, 2016.  Janek Skarzynski / AFP
Pope Francis walks through the entrance of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland on a visit to the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau 29 July, 2016. Janek Skarzynski / AFP

AUSCHWITZ // Following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Pope Francis walked through the gates of Auschwitz on Friday, under the infamous sign saying Arbeit Macht Frei (“work makes you free”) which taunted the many thousands who passed under it in the darkest days of the Second World War.

Unlike Pope Benedict, who was German and the Polish-born Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis has no personal connection with the notorious concentration camp where the Nazis turned mass murder into an industry. He had requested that his entourage keep back to allow him to pass under the gates alone and in silence. He had announced in advance that he would make no speeches but would reflect in silence on the horrors and hope that God “ will give me the grace to weep.”

Once through, he sat on a bench and bowed his head in voiceless prayer. There were many more prayers — at the ruins of the crematorium as Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich sang the Jewish psalm for the dead, as he walked slowly along a row of memorial plaques, written in the 23 languages spoken by the prisoners, and in front of the death wall where the Nazis summarily executed thousands of people by firing squad.

There he lit a candle and met 11 Auschwitz survivors, all in striped scares evoking the prison garb they were forced to wear as inmates of the concentration camp. All now are very aged, like Helena Dunicz Niwinska, 101, who played the violin in the Auschwitz orchestra. Others had worked in the camp hospital or been imprisoned as children.

Survivor Janina Iwanska, 86 said, “It was very moving. I wanted to kneel before him but he took me in his arms and kissed my cheeks.”

One place Pope Francis especially wanted to see was the dark underground cell where Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest had spent the last days of his life. The priest sacrificed his own life to save the life of another man.

Friday was the 75th anniversary of his death.

At Birkenau, the partner camp to Auschwitz three kilometres away, where more than a million Jews, Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, homosexuals and anti-Nazi partisans were killed in gas chambers, he met some 25 Christian Poles who risked their lives during the war to help hide and protect Jews. The group included Maria Augustyn, whose family hid a Jewish couple behind a wardrobe for years, and Anna Bando, who helped rescue an orphan from the Warsaw ghetto and gave several Jews forged “Aryan” papers.

It was the first time a pope had met people who have been honoured by Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations “ and Poland has 6,620, more than any other country, a reflection of the fact that Poland was home to the largest Jewish community in Europe before the Holocaust.

Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma and their seven children were butchered in Markowa for sheltering Jews. On Friday, Stanislaw Ruszala, Catholic parish priest of the town of Markowa read a Polish translation of the same Hebrew prayer read by the rabbi.

They were the only words heard in public during the visit. The only words from Pope Francis were those he wrote in the memorial visitors’ book: ‘Lord have mercy on your people. Lord, forgive so much cruelty” written in his native tongue, Spanish.

* Associated Press