Sitting with head bowed and eyes closed, Pope Francis paid silent tribute to the victims of one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.
The pope arrived July 29 at the Auschwitz-BirkenauNazi death camp in Oswiecim, an area now blanketed by green fields and empty barracks lined by barbed wire fences, remnants of a horror that remains embedded in history.
Used by the Nazis from 1940 to 1945, the camp was the Nazi’s largest and consisted of three parts: Auschwitz I, where many were imprisoned and murdered; the Birkenau extermination camp — also known as Auschwitz II — and Auschwitz III (Auschwitz-Monowitz), an area of auxiliary camps that included several factories.
In 1942, Auschwitz became the site of the mass extermination of over 1 million Jews, 23,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and thousands of Polish citizens of different nationalities.
Among those killed were St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Conventual Franciscan friar, and Edith Stein, a Jewish philosopher who converted to Catholicism and became a Carmelite nun, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
The pope then made his way to Block 11 to greet a dozen survivors of the camp, including a 101-year-old violinist, who survived by being in the camp orchestra. Pope Francis greeted each survivor individually, gently grabbing their hands and kissing their cheeks.
Among the survivors was Naftali Furst of Bratislava, Slovakia, who was deported to Auschwitz and was evacuated to Buchenwald in January 1945 before his liberation.
Furst, who now lives in Israel, gave the pope a photograph showing him and other inmates imprisoned in the Auschwitz barracks.
Pope Francis also signed a book for Furst before he made his way toward the “death wall” where thousands of prisoners were lined up and shot in the back of the head before their bodies were sent to the crematoriums.
Candle in hand, the pope lit an oil lamp in front of the wall, before praying and laying his hand on the wall. He then turned around and entered the barracks of Block 11.
Also known as “the death block” because the Nazis used it to inflict torture, it houses the cell where St. Maximilian Kolbe spent his final hours, starved and dehydrated before being given a lethal injection of carbolic acid.
Pope Francis entered the darkened cell, illuminated by a faint light from the corridor, revealing a candle, an engraved plaque marking the site of the Franciscan friar’s death, and countless words — even a cross — etched on the walls by those who spent their final moments in the starvation cell.
Once again Pope Francis sat in silence with his head bowed. Alone in the cell for eight minutes, he occasionally looked up to contemplate his surroundings.
Outside the cell, he signed the visitors’ book, writing a simple message: “Lord, have mercy on your people. Lord, forgive so much cruelty.”
Read the whole thing and particularly go watch the accompanying video.
I await the critics that will come forth, those who completely miss the substance of the visit while focusing on its style.
It's the nature of the world we live in.
I found it powerful. Most powerful.
Indeed Lord, have mercy. Indeed Lord, forgive.