Pope Benedict XVI walked alone under the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate at the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau as he began a poignant visit to the site where Hitler's Germany killed 1.1 million people.
Pope Benedict XVI in Auschwitz
As church bells rang in the southern town of Oswiecim -- the Polish name for Auschwitz -- a solemn Benedict, his hands clasped in prayer, walked in silence the 200 meters (yards) to the execution wall wedged between prisoner blocks 10 and 11 where the Nazis summarily shot thousands of prisoners. His face grave, Benedict stood a few moments in prayer, removing his hat before bowing solemnly and placing a bowl containing a lighted candle before the grim wall.
Meeting the survivors
The 79-year-old pontiff then greeted a line of 32 survivors, men and women, who were waiting to meet him. Some grasped his hands warmly, some knelt to kiss his papal ring, many seemed eager to thank him for visiting the camp. Benedict clasped the hands of the first survivor waiting in line, a woman, wearing the striped scarf that Polish political prisoners wore at the camp.
Passing down the line, an elderly Polish man kissed the pope on both cheeks, a gypsy survivor of the camp pressed the pope's hand to his lips. Henryk Mandelbaum, 83, wearing the distinctive striped cap of the Sonderkommando -- Jewish prisoners who emptied the gas chambers where their fellow Jews perished -- kissed the papal ring.
"Son of the German people"
The pope, who earlier said he would visit Auschwitz camp as a "son of the German people," later uttered a prayer in German for the victims of Nazi brutality.
It was Benedict's third visit to Auschwitz. As Joseph Ratzinger, archbishop of Munich, he accompanied the Polish-born John Paul II during his first visit to the camp as pope in 1979. A year later, he came as part of a delegation of German bishops.
European papers generally hailed the visit but had criticism of his failure to lay the blame for the Holocaust squarely on Germany.
A drawn and grim-faced Pope Benedict XVI shattered a taboo in the often-blighted relationship between Christians and Jews by using his native German language to pray for forgiveness and reconciliation in the former Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz, wrote the Times of London. Throughout his four-day pilgrimage to Poland, a sentimental tribute to his predecessor and mentor John Paul II, Pope Benedict has avoided speaking German, aware that the older generation still regard it as the language of the old oppressor. But, the paper continued, the choice of German in Auschwitz was a deliberate gesture — a recognition that he had come to the camp not just as the Head of the Roman Catholic Church, but as a German and as an individual.
The pope's visit to "this place of horror" must of course be influenced by his German nationality, a topic which he spoke about, wrote the Milan-based Corriere della Sera, which could result in some criticism. Benedict attributed the direct responsibility for the annihilation (of Europe's Jews) to a "band of criminals" and described the (German) people as "used and abused," thereby clearing them of some of the blame.
Spanish daily El Mundo said Benedict "is exempting the German people of its responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis," while the Catalan Christian paper La Vanguardia said the pontiff had "exclusively" placed blame for the Holocaust on Adolf Hitler and his Nazis.
Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Auschwitz yesterday crowned the long process of reconciliation between his native Germany and its eastern neighbor, wrote the British Daily Telegraph. In 1970, Willy Brandt, chancellor of the country which in 1939 launched the Blitzkrieg, knelt at the memorial to heroes of the Warsaw ghetto. Yesterday, at the Holocaust's most notorious site, the Pope, who was a member of the Hitler Youth and served briefly in the Wehrmacht, prayed for peace in his native tongue, a language he has generally eschewed during this tour in favor of Polish and Italian. It was a moment of profound historical significance.
Neither as a German nor as the head of the Catholic Church did Benedict need to fear this visit, wrote the Berliner Morgenpost. After all, Benedict XVI is not the first pope to visit Auschwitz. John Paul II went there as well, one of the many attempts he made to promote reconciliation between Christians and Jews and between Germans and Poles. Benedict was able to build upon that and it seemed to work, the paper continued. Almost two million Poles cheered him on and appear to have taken the man with the modest smile into their hearts as they did his great predecessor.