Describing himself as a "son of the German people," it was a solemn Pope Benedict XVI who walked under Auschwitz concentration camp's "Arbeit Macht Frei" metal arch. The German Pope's visit to the Second World Wardeath camp broke new ground in the relationship between Catholics and Jews as he prayed for forgiveness in his native German tongue.
Then speaking in Italian before Auschwitz survivors, he said: "It is particularly difficult for a Pope that comes to Germany to come here. Pope John Paul II came here as a son of the Polish people. I come here today as a son of the German people. For this very reason, I can and must echo his words: I could not fail to come here. I had to come."
He added: "In such a place, no words are possible, just stupefied silence which makes one ask God: why? Why did You not say anything? How was He able to tolerate such destruction? I pray to God not to allow a similar thing to ever happen again."
The tour of the camp in southern Poland saw the Pope visit a Catholic dialogue centre and preside over interfaith prayers in Hebrew and German, including the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
But the most moving moment came as Pope Benedict met Jewish survivors of the camp. In blue and white neckties, reminiscent of prisoners' striped camp uniforms, the 32 elderly men and women stood by the "Wall of Death", where Jewish prisoners were shot. Benedict passed down the line and some handed over pictures of meetings with his predecessor, John Paul II. Others kissed the pontiff's hand and then, unable to cope with the emotion, simply burst into tears.
The visit marked the end of the Pope's four-day tour of Poland, the homeland of his predecessor, John Paul II, who died in 2005. He celebrated mass on Sunday morning in front of more than 900,000 people in the Krakow field where John Paul II traditionally held gatherings. Benedict told worshippers that, although Poland was the land of John Paul II, as the head of the world's Catholics, it was also now his country.
But to visit Auschwitz was always going to be difficult for the Bavarian-born former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. As a boy, he served involuntarily in the Hitler Youth and was later drafted into a Nazi anti-aircraft unit.
However Benedict, whose decision to become a priest was partly motivated by the brutality of the Nazi regime, insisted on going to Auschwitz despite aides initially leaving a visit off the Papal schedule.
It was nonetheless an emotionally-charged affair, tied up with complex issues of German war guilt and marred by news that Poland's Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich, was the victim of a suspected anti-Semitic attack in Warsaw on Saturday. Pope Benedict had avoided using German during his trip, speaking mostly in Polish and Italian to avoid offending Polish and Jewish sensibilities. The Vatican dropped plans to drive the Pope through the gates of Auschwitz, after organisers pointed out that only SS members ever drove through the camp gates; prisoners had to walk.
The Vatican still struggles with criticism over its silence in the face of Nazi mass murder. John Paul II was the first Pope to speak about the responsibility of the Catholic Church to atone for this. Now, the pressure is on the first German Pope to continue the process.
Young Polish Catholics appeared to welcome their new Pontiff and some observers commented Benedict's visit was more important than John Paul II's 1979, marking a milestone in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Holocaust. Others complained that Benedict appeared to be following in the footsteps of his predecessor rather than striking out on his own.
"Seldom has a Pope stayed so close to the concept of being a successor," an editorial in Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper said. "As Benedict travels through Poland, every step, every word seems to be taken from his predecessor John Paul II."
Earlier Pope Benedict celebrated mass in Warsaw's Pilsudski Square, the spot where John Paul II told Poles to stay strong in their faith under Communism.Reuse content