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Pope Francis visits Auschwitz to pray for victims

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Pope Francis visits Auschwitz to pray for victims

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Pope Francis has paid a sombre visit to the Nazi German Second World War death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

He began by walking through the notorious entrance gate bearing the cynical message ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ – work will make you free.

Francis is the third consecutive pope to make the pilgrimage to the camp in Poland where as many as 1.5 million people were killed, most of whom were Jewish.

Before the visit, he had said he wanted to: “Go to that place of horror without speeches, without crowds. Alone, enter, pray.”

And so it was – his head bowed, the pope sat or walked in silent contemplation for much of the two hours he spent there.

In front of Block 11, the so-called death block, Francis kissed a wooden post from which inmates were hung by their arms or beaten as punishment.

After meeting Polish Prime Minister Beate Szydlo, the pope spoke with a dozen or so Auschwitz survivors including Helena Dunicz Niwinska, a 101-year-old woman who played the violin in the camp orchestra.

He greeted them one by one, shook their hands and kissed each on the cheeks.

At the spot where many were executed by firing squad, Francis left a large white candle and again prayed.

Inside the death block the pope visited a cell containing the memorial to Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Catholic monk who volunteered to take the place of a man whom a camp commandant had ordered should be starved to death.

There too the pope sat in silent contemplation.

In Auschwitz’s commemorative book, Francis wrote in Spanish: “Lord, have mercy on your people. Lord, forgiveness for so much cruelty”.

Pope Francis was then taken the short distance to Birkenau, the part of the camp where most of the killings were carried out in gas chambers.

There – surrounded by guard towers and barbed wire fences – he bent his head before memorial plaques to the victims written in 23 languages.

Poland’s chief rabbi Michael Schudrich sang in Hebrew a psalm for the dead watched by an audience including Auschwitz survivors.

Also present to meet Pope Francis were Christian Poles who had helped to save Jews during World War Two.

The visit to Auschwitz came on the third day of a five-day visit to Poland that includes meetings with young pilgrims taking part in World Youth Day, a global youth celebration.

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