Pope Francis has visited the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, walking beneath the infamous gates emblazoned with the words arbeit macht frei, work sets you free.
After arriving at the museum and memorial to the 1.1 million people killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau during the second world war, the pope sat alone on a bench for several minutes of sombre contemplation and prayer.
Francis had said he wanted his visit – the third by a pope – to be conducted in silence. “I would like to go to that place of horror without speeches, without crowds – only the few people necessary. Alone, enter, pray. And may the Lord give me the grace to cry.”
His only public words were written in the Auschwitz guest book: “Lord, have pity on your people. Lord, forgive so much cruelty.”
At Block 11, Francis met a group of former inmates of the camp and some of those hailed as “righteous among nations” for risking their lives to save Jews during the Nazi occupation of Poland.
One passed him a lit candle, which the pope carried to the “wall of death” at the end of the block’s yard, in front of which several thousand inmates were shot dead.
The pope spent several minutes alone in the cell of Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest who volunteered to take the place of a prisoner selected for death. Kolbe died on 14 August 1941 and was later canonised by Pope John Paul II.
The visit falls on the 75th anniversary of the day Kolbe was condemned to death. After signing a visitors’ book, Francis went to Birkenau, an adjacent camp, where he was to meet more former inmates and people who helped to save Jews. Psalm 130 – “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord” – was recited by a rabbi in Hebrew.
Accompanying the pope was Father Stanisław Ruszała, the parish priest of Markowa, where in 1942 the parishioners Józef and Wiktoria Ulma and their seven children were shot dead for sheltering eight Jews.
Also present were the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, and prime minister, Beata Szydło. The vast majority of those who died at Aushwitz-Birkenau were Jewish, but thousands of Polish Catholics, Roma and Soviet prisoners of war also lost their lives.
Speaking before the visit, Piotr Cywiński, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial complex, said: “There are places and tragedies which make you at a loss for words, where actually there are no words to express what so many still see as unimaginable.”
He said the world was markedly different today than at the times when previous popes visited Auschwitz: John Paul II in 1979, and Benedict in 2006.
“It is increasingly internally divided, threatened with terrorism and deterioration of human rights. It is a world where human solidarity is slowly being worn down.
“If 15 years ago someone had told us that we would so hysterically react to aiding refugees from war-torn territories, I would never have believed it.
“This is a world which is desperately in need of a wise message, of being reminded of the fundamental human truths. Auschwitz and the tragedy of the Holocaust sensitise us acutely to these issues.”