Pope Francis made a historic visit Friday to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the former German Nazi concentration camp in Poland, to pay tribute to the more than 1 million people, mostly Jews, who lost their lives there in the Holocaust.
The Pope arrived early Friday for his first trip to Auschwitz and sat alone for some time by a tree in solemn reflection. He was surrounded by piles of rubble — destroyed gas chambers once used to put Jews to death during World War II.
Pope Francis said little during his first visit to Auschwitz.
Francis is the third Pope to visit the site of wartime torture and killings, and the trip comes after he made a stern warning this week that “the world is at war.”
The Pope remained silent throughout most of the visit, but he left a message noting the horror and the need to forgive.
In the camp’s guestbook, Francis signed his name and wrote: “Lord, have mercy on your people! Lord, forgiveness for so much cruelty!
Pope ‘like my friend’
The Pope also met briefly with Holocaust survivors and their families.
Among those in attendance was survivor and Jewish activist Marian Turski, who was held at the concentration camp.
Turski said he felt the Pope was “like my friend,” commending his ability to relate to people.
He said he was tattooed at Auschwitz to signify he had been “purchased” by the camp.
“I was in this camp until almost the last day and then put in the death march to another camp,” he told journalists.
He said the camp commanders would tell the prisoners that surviving for two months was a reasonable time for the Polish. “If you are a priest or a Jew, I don’t think you can survive longer than a week or two weeks,” he said, relaying the commanders’ comments.
A song for the departed
The Pope visited cells where prisoners were held, sitting in the middle of one in prayer, making the sign of the cross before seeing others.
One of the cells held the Polish Catholic priest Maximilian Kolbe, who died in 1941 when he volunteered to take the place of another prisoner set to be executed.
The Pope also visited the nearby Birkenau camp, known as Auschwitz II, where he met with dozens of people who housed Jews or risked their lives to protect them from the Nazis.
They knelt before the Pope, and many kissed his hand as Francis handed out little red boxes containing commemorative medals of his trip to Poland.