BY CHRISTINA FARRELL
Hi STOOD TN SILENCE —a solitary figure in papal white, his hands clasped in prayer.
Pope Benedict XVI came to Auschwitz last Sunday — a German Pope visiting the scene of Nazi atrocities. The visit, specifically requested by the Holy Father, marked the culmination of a joyous four-day trip to Poland, the homeland of his "beloved predecessor" John Paul 11.
But there was little joy in the ruins of the death camp where over a million people had died, exterminated as part of Adolf Hitler's Final Solution.
Pope Benedict was forced to join the Hitler Youth as a child and was later conscripted into the German army, serving on an anti-aircraft battery. His presence at Auschwitz was inevitably the focus of some controversy. It was not originally part of his itinerary but the Pope insisted that he "had to come". There was speculation beforehand as to whether he would offer a Rica culpa for the suffering inflicted. In the end he came, he said, as a Christian, as a pope and as a German.
"In a place like this, words fail, in the end, there can only be a dread silence — a silence which is itself a heartfelt plea to God; Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?" he asked.
The Vatican had confirmed that the Pope did not wish to be driven into A uschwiti but had chosen to walk, as the prisoners had walked. He passed through the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei gate, erected to tell slave labourers that "work sets you free". Behind him. at a distance, a phalanx of bishops and officials followed in their black and scarlet apparel. There was silence
save for the click of camera shutters and the sound of footsteps moving forward. The skies darkened as the rain began to fall.
Pope Benedict went first to the Wall of Death where thousands of prisoners were shot. He stood before the wall, pock-marked with the bullets of the executioners' guns and offered prayers, lighting a candle in memory of those who had died.
He then moved towards a group of 32 survivors, sonic of them wearing the grey striped uniform of the concentration camp inmates.
Elderly men and women, many of them overcome with emotion, genuflected to kiss his hand and he, in turn, comforted them, placing a hand over their hands and offering kind words, gentle words.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is associated in the human imagination with the mass destruction of 15 million Jews, Poles, gypsies and other people who (lid not fit the warped Aryan ideal. But it was also a place of martyrdom.
St Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan priest, died there on August 14, 1941. The Nazis thought a prisoner had escaped — he was later found drowned in a prison latrine — and in reprisal 10 men were selected to be killed by starvation. Fr Kolbe offered his life in exchange for one of the prisoners. The priest was still alive when the prison guards opened the bunker door two weeks later. He was executed by lethal injection.
In 1981 Pope John Paul II canonised Fr Maximilian as a "martyr of charity" and Pope Benedict, 25 years later, stood in the cell where the saint had suffered and died. He was, he said, humbled by the experience.
Pope Benedict left the camp briefly to bless the nearby Centre of Dialogue and Prayer, run by Catholic nuns, and then returned to the site of the gas chambers, where he stood again in silent reflection.
He has been to the death camps before — accompanying John Paul II to Auschwitz in 1979 and on a private visit with the German bishops in 1983. But this visit was of a different magnitude altogether.
In 1945, Joseph Ratzinger had deserted his army unit, heading home in the chaotic final days of the conflict as Germany capitulated. But it was a war record nonetheless. As the German newspaper Berliner Zeitung pointed out: "Sixty years after whole families were sent naked into the gas chambers a former member of the Hitler Youth returns to the most horrible of these cursed places as the Pope."
Pope Benedict understood the significance of walking here without the usual entourage of Church officials. He wanted, he said, to meditate among the ruins of the barracks and the railway sidings where men, women and children had disembarked to certain death. This was a personal via owls and one that had resonance for both the Christian and the Jewish world.
As the rain fell harder an aide stepped forward and shielded the Pontiff with a large white umbrella. He walked slowly down a line of bronze slabs commemorating the 22 nationalities who had perished here under the Third Reich's systematic programme of genocide.
When finally he spoke, it was in Italian, not Polish. The leaden sky was broken, momentarily, by the half arc of a rainbow, out of place above the tumbled ruins.
Clearly moved he chose to speak the words of the Old, not the New Testament, to remember that the pain of Auschwitz had been shared by Jew and Gentile.
"To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man, is almost impossible — and it is particularly difficult for a Christian, for a pope from Germany," he said.
"In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here; yet our silence becomes in turn a plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the living God to never let this happen again."
He recalled the words of his predecessor — a towering presence during this four-day visit. John Paul was a son of the Polish people, the son of a nation which had suffered greatly. By contrast he came, he said, "as a son of the German people".
He added: "For this very reason, I can and must echo his words: I could not fail to come here."
His speech did not focus on redemption through the Risen Christ but invoked the psalms and prayers that both Jews and Christians would have said in the death camp.
"The words of Psalm 44 come to mind, Israel's lament for her woes... Why do you sleep, 0 Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and our oppression."
That same cry of anguish was shared down the ages by all those who suffer for the love of God, for the love of truth and goodness.
"Let us cry out to God," he called, "when new misfortunes befall us, when all the forces of darkness seem to issue anew from human hearts." At the crematoria of Birkenau the Pope had offered a prayer in German — the only time during the visit that he had spoken in his native tongue.
Ile did not come to Auschwitz to apologise for the sins of the German people but spoke of suffering common to humanity.
The Germans who had been brought to Auschwitz-Birkenau and met their deaths were, he explained, regarded as "Abschaum der Nation"— the refuse of the nation.
"We are grateful to them because they did not submit to the power of evil and now they stand before us like lights shining in a dark night," he said.
The victims' deaths demanded not retribution but an even greater desire to resist evil and join in love. Humanity had walked through a "valley of darkness" but Cod was present.
Benedict again used the Old Testament for reference with the words of Psalm 23 a prayer of trust for Jew and Christian alike. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me," the Pope said.
On his arrival in Poland on May 25 the Pope had told the crowds that his visit was "not just a sentimental journey" in the footsteps of John Paul II. Yet in ninny ways this trip was testament to the friendship and respect that the two men shared for over 25 years and Benedict urged Poles to pray for the late pope's early beatification.
Repeatedly during the visit he spoke of his "beloved predecessor". At an open-air Mass in Pilsudski Square in the centre of Warsaw, over 200,000 people heard him pay tribute to John Paul's courage in standing up to the Communist authorities — a rallying cry to the Polish people to retain their freedom and dignity.
Visits to the relic of the Black Madonna at the Holy Shrine of Jasna Gora in Czechostowa, and a visit to Krakow, the town where John Paul had lived until 1978, reinforced the sense that the Benedict papacy is continuing the legacy of Karol Wojtyla.
But, as this trip evolved, Poles witnessed again and again that Pope Benedict's pontificate also has a new and distinctive style, reaffirming the truths of the Gospel and resisting the decline towards relativism which threatens to undermine the very Christian foundation of Europe.
As the papal entourage sped towards Krakow airport on Sunday evening, some of the hundreds who had come to hear the Pope speak said the condemnation of Nazi crimes was not sufficiently explicit. Benedict, they cried, had not made reparation enough.
But there were many who felt the visit had marked a turning point in Catholic-Jewish relations, the fruits of which are yet to he seen. Even the most tenuous German-Polish relations had also been improved — the warmth and friendship of the Pope's welcome in Poland heralding greater diplomacy and co-operation.
When his election to the papacy was announced Benedict XVI had declared himself to be a "humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord" and it was in humility that this German son came hack to Poland.
His prayer at Auschwitz was a moment of healing and will not be forgotten.
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