Pope Francis visited today the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a Nazi concentration and extermination camp where more than 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were put to death during the Second World War.
According to Vatican Radio, this morning the Holy Father paid an emotional visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum, during his 15th Apostolic Visit abroad and his first trip to Poland, July 27-31.
Last week, the Vatican announced the Pope’s decision to not give a speech during this visit, noting his preference to enter alone, in silent prayer.
“I would like to go to that place of horror without speeches, without crowds — only the few people necessary,” he explained. “Alone, enter, pray. And may the Lord give me the grace to cry.”
For the Pope, this visit to the former Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was to be one of silence and prayer.
In fact, there was almost silence. The only sounds heard, reported the Vatican Radio correspondent, were the cameras as a solemn Pope Francis walked alone through the infamous gate that reads “Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free.)
Anniversary of Maximillian Kolbe’s Condemnation
After this, the Pontiff was driven in an electric car to the notorious Block 11, also known as the death block, where Franciscan priest Fr Maximillian Kolbe died after offering up his life for a complete stranger, 75 years ago. The Vatican Radio reporter noted one could hear a pin drop as the Pope sat in prayer with his eyes firmly closed in this place of suffering.
During his visit to Auschwitz I, Pope Francis met with survivors of this camp of terror, now elderly men and women. The Holy Father greeted each one with a kiss on both cheeks and clasped their hands. Francis, holding a candle, then went on to light a lamp he had gifted.
Next, Francis made a prayerful visit to Maximillian Kolbe’s cell. Today, July 29th, marks the anniversary of the day in which Kolbe was condemned to death.
Francis also visited Auschwitz II Birkenau, which was built in 1941 and saw the extermination of a massive number of Jews.
The visit concluded with a rabbi chanting Psalm 130 in Hebrew, and Francis, at a monument recalling those who never came home, placed a votive lamp at its foot.