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At the gates of Auschwitz hell, Pope Francis asks God to 'forgive so much cruelty' | One Herald
Home / Health / At the gates of Auschwitz hell, Pope Francis asks God to 'forgive so much cruelty'

At the gates of Auschwitz hell, Pope Francis asks God to 'forgive so much cruelty'


Oswiecim, Poland: Seated on a bench near the gate to the site of the Auschwitz death camp in Poland on Friday, Pope Francis prayed in silent tribute to the 1.5 million people, most of them Jews, killed there during World War Two.

The third pope to visit Auschwitz and the first not to have lived through the war in Europe, he entered the camp on foot, passing through the iron gates infamous for the sign reading “Arbeit Macht Frei”, German for “Work Sets You Free”.


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Visibly moved by the sight of the wooden guard towers, barbed wire fences and inmate barracks, he sat in silent prayer for about 15 minutes. Francis said before the trip that he had decided to make no statement as silence was the best way to honour the dead.

He later spent a few minutes quietly greeting 11 Auschwitz survivors, kissing each of them on both cheeks. One man gave the pope a picture of himself surrounded by other emaciated inmates in a bunk, and asked Francis to sign it.

The 79-year-old Argentine-born pontiff then proceeded to walk through the barely lit corridors of the drab, brick building of Auschwitz Block 11, which had housed prisoners selected for special punishment.

With aides using small flashlights to light his way, Francis visited the underground cell where Franciscan monk Maksymilian Kolbe was killed after offering his life to save a Polish man who camp handlers had picked to die of starvation.

Just outside the cell, in Auschwitz’s commemorative book, Francis wrote in Spanish: “Lord, have pity on your people. Lord, forgive so much cruelty”.

German occupation forces set up the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp during World War Two in Oswiecim, a town around 70 kilometres from Poland’s second city, Krakow, in the country’s south.

Pope Francis walks through the infamous gates of Auschwitz.
Pope Francis walks through the infamous gates of Auschwitz. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AP

Between 1940 and 1945, Auschwitz developed into a vast complex of barracks, workshops, gas chambers and crematoria.

One life for another

Quiet reflection and prayer for Francis at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Quiet reflection and prayer for Francis at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Photo: L’Osservatore Romano/AP

On July 29, 1941, the camp director, in reprisal for the escape of a prisoner, chose 10 others and sentenced them to death by starvation.

When the selection was completed, Maksymilian Kolbe stepped forward and volunteered to die in place of a man with a family, Franciszek Gajowniczek.

The inscription left in Spanish by Pope Francis in the Auschwitz guest book: "Lord, have pity on your people. Lord, ...
The inscription left in Spanish by Pope Francis in the Auschwitz guest book: “Lord, have pity on your people. Lord, forgive so much cruelty.” Photo: Pawel Sawicki/Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum via AP

Mr Kolbe was later killed by lethal injection, but the man he saved survived the war. Mr Kolbe was made a saint in 1982 by then-Pope John Paul II, a Pole.

On Friday, the 75th anniversary of Mr Kolbe’s sacrifice, Francis also visited Birkenau, a part of the camp where most of the killings were committed in gas chambers.

The railway tracks leading to Birkenau.
The railway tracks leading to Birkenau. Photo: Alik Keplicz/AP

Francis, who has made many strong condemnations of anti-Semitism, was driven past ruins of crematoria that the Nazis blew up before the camp was liberated by the Soviet Red Army on January 27, 1945.

Francis listened silently as Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, sang from Psalm 130 and a priest read its words in Polish, just metres away from the end of the infamous single rail track where cattle cars brought hundreds of thousands of prisoners to the camp.

Pope Francis prays in front of the memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Friday.
Pope Francis prays in front of the memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Friday. Photo: L’Osservatore Romano/AP

He paused at each of 23 plaques, each reading in a different language: “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.”

After greeting some 25 people who have been honoured as “Just Among the Nations” for helping save Jews, Francis left as quietly as he had arrived. 

Pope Francis visits the Auschwitz prison cell of Catholic saint Maximilian Kolbe.
Pope Francis visits the Auschwitz prison cell of Catholic saint Maximilian Kolbe. Photo: L’Osservatore Romano/AP

Reuters



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