'I could not fail to come here'
Piotr Chmielinski, Milena Kindziuk, Artur Stelmasiak
At the German camp Auschwitz-Birkenau Benedict XVI spoke strong words. And the visit itself was in a completely different atmosphere than all his earlier meetings. People stood in silence and contemplation, with the accompaniment of classical music. They did not cheer or shout. The Pope himself was deeply moved.
Benedict XVI arrived at the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau at 5.17. In silence and by himself he crossed the gate leading to the former camp with the infamous inscription "Arbeit macht frei" (Work makes you free). The papal retinue followed him some distance behind. There was absolute silence there. One could only hear bells from afar. The Holy Father walked several hundred meters in front of the papal retinue. Cardinals and bishops walked several meters behind him.
One could see his face immersed in contemplation and his hands in the gesture of prayer. He walked in silence and contemplation for five minutes. President of the Republic of Poland Lech Kaczynski went to meet the Holy Father and they together walked the last metres to the death wall where thousands of innocent victims were killed. They walked side by side in complete silence. The Pope, walking by himself approached the death wall where he prayed for several minutes. He took off his white skull cap, called a zucchetto. At the end of his prayer he made a sign of the cross, bowed down and lit a candle, which he placed at the wall. At the Wall of Death, a line of 32 elderly Auschwitz camp survivors awaited Benedict. He moved slowly down the line, stopping to talk with each. Some handed him old photos, most likely these were camp pictures. Some were on crutches; some had walking sticks. The Pope showed utmost cordiality to all of them, stroking their heads and blessing them. And he listened to them.
Afterwards, in silence, going through a narrow corridor, the Pope walked down to the basement, to Block No 11, which the prisoners called the Block of Death. He entered the death cell of St. Maximilian Kolbe. He stood silently before the candle left there in 1979 by John Paul II. After a second, with his hands folded in prayer, being deeply moved he began saying aloud in Latin: 'Saint Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us...' At the end of his visit to Auschwitz Benedict XVI entered his signature in the Commemorative Book.
Flowers from a Polish boy and a German girl
Subsequently Benedict XVI went by car to the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer, which was one kilometre away. The Centre was founded by Cardinal Franciszek Macharski. There are educational and prayerful meetings, seminars, and exhibitions at the Centre. And young people have their retreats there. At 5.50 the Pope was greeted by Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, Fr. Jan Nowak, director of the Centre, and Fr. Manfred Deselaers, German priest who works at the Centre. Two young people - a Polish boy and a German girl - handed flowers to the Pope. Benedict XVI talked to several Carmelite nuns who lived and prayed in a convent, which is only 200 meters away from the Centre. The rules do not allow the sisters to leave their convent. However, on this occasion they did leave in order to meet the Vicar of Christ. The Pope also met representatives of the Krakow Foundation of the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer. The local Bishop Tadeusz Rakoczy, Bielsko-Zywiec, informed the Holy Father about the activities of the Centre. Later the Holy Father entered his signature in the Commemorative Book of the Centre. Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz greeted Benedict XVI at the Centre. He stressed that on this land the tragedy of mankind took place, hatred reached its peak, mankind was gravely insulted, God was gravely insulted, God, who created man in his own image and likeness. 'But on this land love has won. It is enough to mention just one name: St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe. And another name: St. Teresa Benedict of the Cross, Edith Stein. On this land, stained with the blood of innocent victims of an insane ideology, we are trying to build a new culture of love. We are trying to learn the dialogue with everyone. We are trying to learn the dialogue with God', Cardinal Dziwisz said. Two young staff members of the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer presented the Pope with the text of the Message of the young people of Oswiecim to the youth of the world, prepared on the occasion of the World Youth Days in Cologne in August 2005.
Rainbow in the sky
When the Pope arrived at Birkenau it started to rain and it was windy. The Holy Father walked in complete silence along the 22 tablets in front of the memorial, commemorating the victims of KL Auschwitz-Birkenau (there are inscriptions in various languages, in his speech Benedict XVI mentioned some tablets: in Hebrew, Russian and Polish). He paused at every tablet and prayed standing. His face was attentive, serious and contemplative. When he finished his extraordinary journey it stopped raining and a rainbow appeared above the camp. Then he stood before the International Memorial of the Martyrdom of Nations. At his request there was only a single chair placed there in order not to disturb the mood and solemnity of the place.
A religious service commenced with the singing of Psalm 22 'My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? followed by petitions in various languages. The first one in Roma was recited by Romani Rose, a representative of the European Roma. Archbishop Szymon, the Orthodox Archbishop of the Diocese of Lodz and Poznan, prayed in Russian, and Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki in Polish. Finally Benedict himself prayed in German. Then standing he gave a speech in Italian.
'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 and troubling for a Christian, for a Pope from Germany', he said. In his speech the Holy Father made three references to his German origin and said that the visit to the former camp was his duty before the truth and the just due of all who suffered here, a duty before God. The Pope acknowledged that words fail in a place such as Auschwitz and questions like: 'Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?'
The Holy Father reminded us that all evil was born from the vicious ideology. 'The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth. Thus the words of the Psalm: 'We are being killed, accounted as sheep for the slaughter' were fulfilled in a terrifying way. Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God...'
In conclusion, making a reference to Psalm 23, the Pope observed that in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp the whole humanity went through the 'dark valley.'