KRAKOW, Poland (RNS) Pope Francis paid a silent visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp where he spent intense moments in prayer, embraced Holocaust survivors and met those who risked their lives to help Jews persecuted by the Nazis.
But while Francis made no speeches during his Friday (July 29) visit to the notorious camp, where more than 1 million people, mostly Jews, died during World War II, he left a simple written plea in the guest book: “Lord, have mercy on your people! Lord, forgiveness for so much cruelty!”
The visit by the pontiff highlights the horrors that took place under the Nazis, and for Francis it is a timely reminder of what happens when the concept of mercy is forgotten.
Francis has made God’s mercy a central theme of his papacy and believes it can be used as a tool for overcoming conflict in a world that he says is “at war with itself.”
Jews died in gas chambers, by bullets, beatings or malnutrition in Auschwitz-Birkenau, a town about 30 miles west of Krakow. Poles, Roma and Soviet prisoners of war were also among its victims.
The pope had emotional encounters with 10 survivors of the camp, warmly embracing each of them in turn and listening solemnly to what they had to say.
Among them was Marian Majerowicz, who lost both his parents and a younger brother in the camp, and Helena Dunicz-Niwinska, a violinist who became part of an orchestra during her time in Auschwitz and was evacuated during a “death march” in 1945.
Francis, who is the third pope to visit the camp, walked through the main gate of Auschwitz and under its infamous inscription, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which is German for “work sets you free.”
He was taken to various execution spots where he paused to pray in silence and lit a lamp in front of a wall where prisoners were lined up and shot. The lamp was the pontiff’s gift to the Auschwitz museum and contains symbols of redemption in its design.
Rabbi David Rosen, the international director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, who accompanied the pope on his visit, told The New York Times: “In such a place, words are inadequate and it’s silence that becomes the ultimate expression of solidarity with the victims.”
The pope also paid a visit to the infamous “Block 11,” a collection of cells where prisoners were forced to stand all night long following a brutal day of hard labor.
Among those imprisoned there was a Polish friar, the Rev. Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to be executed in place of a German man who had a wife and children. Kolbe was declared a saint in 1982 by then-Pope John Paul II, who was also Polish and was the first pope to visit Auschwitz.
Francis stopped for an extended period of time to pray in Kolbe’s cell.
Afterward, Francis made a short trip to Birkenau, an extermination camp attached to Auschwitz, where he met with 25 people who risked their lives to save Jews and are known as “Righteous among the Nations.”
They included Anna Bando, who at the age of 12 smuggled food in a handbag into the Jewish ghetto, and Witold Lisowski, who at age 13 helped shelter his Jewish friend after he escaped from a transport to a death camp.
The pope also met with Sister Janina Kierstan, the mother general of the Franciscan Sisters of the Family, a religious order that helped save 500 Jewish children during the war, and the Rev. Stanislaw Ruszala, a priest representing a Polish parish where a Catholic couple and their children were killed for saving Jews.
Francis concluded the visit by praying, together with a rabbi, Psalm 130, which begins with the well-known words: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.”
Francis is on a five-day visit to Poland, a first for the Argentine-born pontiff. The trip is to wrap up on Sunday following a Mass at World Youth Day, an international Catholic youth festival drawing millions of young people from around the world.
(Christopher Lamb is a Rome-based correspondent covering the papal trip for RNS)