AUSCHWITZ — Passing silently through the main iron gate of Auschwitz that bears the infamous slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” [work sets you free], Pope Francis on Friday continued his five-day trip to Poland with an historic visit to the former Nazi death camp.
Upon entering the camp, the Holy Father boarded an electric vehicle towards Block 11 (a brick building containing special torture chambers where various punishments were applied to prisoners) and the infamous “Death Wall” where the condemned were led for execution. SS men shot several thousand people there.
In the roll call square where the Polish priest and martyr, St. Maximilian Kolbe, offered his life in exchange for that of another prisoner, the Holy Father paused in silent and personal prayer.
Welcomed at the entrance of Block 11 by Poland’s Prime Minister, Mrs. Beata Maria Szydło, the pope then met individually with 12 survivors of the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp. Among the survivors were 101-year-old polish violinist, Helena Dunicz Niwinska; 95-year old Professor Zbigniew Kaczkowski, who escaped from Auschwitz but was captured and imprisoned in Block 11; and 74-year-old Eva Umlauf, who was brought to the camp at the age of two.
Given a candle by the last survivor, the pope then lit a lamp in front of the death wall, bowing his head in prayer before entering alone into the “starvation cell” where the Polish priest and saint, Maximilian Kolbe, was martyred.
The pope’s visit coincides with the 75th anniversary of the day Kolbe was condemned to death. Known for his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Maximilian sought to help the other prisoners and could be heard praying and singing hymns to Jesus and Mary until his death.
Upon leaving the cell of the martyrdom of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the pope signed the Book of Honor with these words in Spanish:
“Señor, ten piedad de tu pueblo!
Señor, perdón por tanta crueldad!”
Lord, have mercy on your people!
Lord, forgiveness for so much cruelty!
Pope Francis then made his way to the Birkenau Camp, the largest camp within the complex located in Oświęcim. After passing the main entrance of the court, the Holy Father proceeded to the International Monument to the Victims, which Pope Benedict visited in 2006. Accompanied by the Prime Minister and the Director of the Auschwitz Museum, in the presence of about 1,000 guests, the Holy Father proceeded on foot to the monument, where recollected in silent prayer, he left a lighted candle. There he met 25 “Righteous among the Nations,” non-Jews who have been honored for risking their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis.
A Rabbi then sang Psalm 130 in Hebrew, which was then read in Polish by one of the survivors.
After his visit to the Birkenau Camp, Pope Francis returned to Kraków.