Pope Francis visited the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz on Friday, keeping a near-total silence to honor the more than 1 million people — almost all of them Jews — who were systematically killed there during World War II.
He said a few quiet words to a group of survivors of the concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, and wrote the following message in Spanish: "Lord, have mercy on your people. Lord, forgive us for so much cruelty."
The visit was intended to be quiet and somber. He told the media before arriving that he "would like to go to that place of horror without speeches, without crowds," as The New York Times reported. He wanted to go "alone, enter pray. ... And may the Lord give me the grace to cry."
As reporters looked on, the pope passed alone under the infamous sign at the camp entrance that bears the words "Arbeit Macht Frei," or "Work Sets You Free."
"This site bore witness to the most systematic, industrialized atrocity in the history of humanity," Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee, who was with the pope during the visit, told the Times. "In such a place, words are inadequate and it's silence that becomes the ultimate expression of solidarity with the victims."
Francis spent time praying at the cell of Polish Conventual Franciscan Friar Maximilian Kolbe, who offered up his life to save that of another. Reuters writes that:
"On July 29, 1941, the camp director, in reprisal for the escape of a prisoner, chose 10 others and sentenced them to death by starvation. When the selection was completed, Kolbe stepped forward and volunteered to die in place of one of them, Franciszek Gajowniczek. Kolbe was later killed by lethal injection but the man he saved survived the war. He was made a saint in 1982 by then-Pope John Paul II, a Pole."
Francis later went to nearby Birkenau, where the Nazis used gas chambers to kill en masse, and greeted 25 Christian Poles "who risked their own lives to help Jews during the German occupation of their country during World War II," The Associated Press reported.
The quiet, contemplative nature of the pope's visit was markedly different from those of his two most recent predecessors, both of whom had direct personal ties to the Holocaust and gave public remarks. As the AP explained:
"St. John Paul II, born in Poland, witnessed the unspeakable suffering inflicted on his nation during the German occupation during the war. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, who visited in 2006, was a German who served in the Hitler Youth for a time as a teenager."