Lord, forgive us such cruelty. Pope Francis at the Auschwitz Memorial.
On July 29th Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church, visited the former German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. As desired by the Holy Father, the visit took place in an atmosphere of prayerful silence and focus. The Pope met among others former prisoners of the camp as well as Poles recognized as Righteous Among the Nations who during the war provided the Jews with selfless help, saving them from extermination.
The visit was inaugurated at the entrance gate to the former Auschwitz I camp with the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free), where the Pope was received by the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Culture and National Heritage of Poland Prof. Piotr Gliński. Then the Pope rode alone through the roll call square where 75 years ago the roll-call was held during which Franciscan friar Maximilian Kolbe sacrificed his life for Franciszek Gajowniczek, chosen by the Germans for death by starvation after the escape of a prisoner.
In front of Block 11, which served as a camp prison, the Pope was welcomed by Beata Szydło, Prime Minister of Poland and Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin. In the yard between blocks 10 and 11 the Pope met twelve former Auschwitz prisoners and then, at the Death Wall where the SS men shot several thousand people – mainly Polish political prisoners – Francis prayed and lit a candle. Then he entered into Block 11 where he was met by Fr. Marco Tasca Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor Conventual and Fr. Marian Gołąb Provincial Superior For Krakow Province.
Like his predecessors who visited the former Auschwitz camp – John Paul II and Benedict XVI – Pope Francis prayed alone in cell number 18, located in the basement of block 11. It was a starvation cell, in which prisoners selected on July 29th 1941 had been incarcerated and where Father Maximilian Kolbe was murdered with a poisonous injection.
“Lord, have mercy on your people. Lord, forgive us such cruelty” – wrote the Holy Father in the Guest Book of the Auschwitz Memorial.
In the second part of the visit Pope Francis visited the former Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp. By the wish of the Pope, he was welcomed in front of the gate by the director of the Auschwitz Memorial and Muzeum Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński. Pope Francis drove along the unloading rail ramp, on which trains with deportees had been stopping since May 1944 SS doctors had been performing selections of Jews in the middle of the ramp, directing their vast majority – children, the sick, the weak and the elderly – to instant death in the gas chambers.
The visit of the Holy Father finished at the monument devoted to all victims of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp located between the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria II and III. Former prisoners, the Righteous Among the Nations, representatives of the Jewish community as well as about 1000 Christians from the Bielsko-Żywiec diocese, within which the former camp was located, awaited the Pope there. The Prime Minister of Poland Beata Szydło, Deputy Prime Minister Prof. Piotr Gliński was also present in Birkenau, along with, representatives of the state and church authorities, members of the Polish Episcopate's Commission for Dialogue with Judaism, members of the Polish Council of Christian and Jews as well as members of the International Auschwitz Council.
The Pope walked along the memorials with the inscription in 23 languages: “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945”. On the main slab of the monument, he also lit a symbolical candle. The Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich as well as Rev. Stanisław Ruszała , the parson of the parish in Markowa where during the war Józef and Wiktoria Ulma together with their seven children were murdered by Germans for helping Jews, read the text of biblical Psalm 130 including among others the following words:
“If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?”
Finally, Pope Francis approached the group the Righteous Among the Nations gathered in front of the monument.
Pope Francis’s visit at the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum took place during the World Youth Day, which is being held this year in Cracow.