Osservatore Romano/Reuters
Pope Francis pays respects by the death wall in the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, Friday.

Pope's silent plea from Auschwitz: 'Lord, forgive so much cruelty'

The visit on Friday was a private and somber one for the Argentine Pope.

Pope Francis walked slowly, in total silence, through the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland on Friday, where German occupiers were ordered by Adolf Hitler to kill 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, in the middle of the 20th century.

Save for a few words exchanged with Holocaust survivors and rescuers, the visit was a private and somber one for the Pope, who entered on foot through the gate at Auschwitz that bears the notorious inscription "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work will set you free).

After Auschwitz, he continued to nearby Birkenau, the site of brutal murders of people in factory-like gas chambers. German occupation forces set up the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp during World War II in Oświęcim, a town about 43 miles from Poland's second city, Krakow, in the south.

From 1940 to 1945 Auschwitz grew into a massive complex of barracks, workshops, gas chambers, and crematoria.

Francis, who is from Argentina, is the first pope who did not live in Europe during the war who has visited Auschwitz.

Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI both had connections to the site. The former was Polish, having lived through the suffering inflicted on his nation during the German occupation. John Paul's 1979 visit made history as the first one by a pontiff, part of the Vatican's efforts to reconcile with the Jewish people. Benedict, who is German and had participated in Hitler Youth as a teenager, visited in 2006.

While Benedict spoke in Italian – deliberately avoiding German – during his visit, questioning why God was silent at the slaughter of so many, Francis' visit had no speeches.  

The 79-year-old pontiff's only statement came in writing in the memorial's guest book: "Lord, have pity on your people. Lord, forgive so much cruelty."

While there, he met with several survivors of the camp, greeting them one by one, shaking their hands, and kissing them on the cheeks.

Vatican and Polish church officials said that Francis wanted to express his sorrow in silence at the site, to mourn the victims in quiet prayer and meditation.

Francis visited Auschwitz on the third day of a five-day trip to Poland that includes meetings with young pilgrims visiting during the church's global youth celebration, called World Youth Day.

Later on Friday, Francis will visit a children's hospital in Krakow and take part in a Way of the Cross with the young people. Friday is devoted to the theme of suffering. 

This report uses material from the Associated Press and Reuters. 

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