2006-05-29 14:45:20


(May 29, 2006): Pope Benedict XVI prayed at the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in Poland on Sunday and asked why God was silent when 1.5 million victims, mostly Jews, died in this "valley of darkness". Ending a four-day pilgrimage to Poland, the 79-year old Pontiff said humans could not fathom "this endless slaughter" but only seek reconciliation for those who suffered "in this place of horror". The symbolism of this visit to the former death camp was heightened by the fact that Pope Benedict is a German who was involuntarily enrolled in the Hitler Youth paramilitary organisation and then drafted into an anti-aircraft unit towards the end of World War Two.
The visit to the former concentration camp, now a memorial to the dead, was heavy with significance for Catholic-Jewish relations. "I come here today as a son of the German people," Pope Benedict said in Italian near the ruins of a crematorium at Birkenau, the death camp of Auschwitz. He said it was almost impossible, particularly for a German Pope, to speak at "the place of the Shoah". "In a place like this, words fail. In the end, there can only be a dreadful silence, a silence which is a heartfelt cry to God -- Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this? "Where was God in those days? Why was he silent? How could he permit this endless slaughter, this triumph of evil?" Humans could not "peer into God's mysterious plan" to understand evil, only "cry out humbly yet insistently to God - Rouse yourself! Do not forget mankind, your creature!"
Pope Benedict entered the main Auschwitz camp walking the gateway topped with the infamous motto “Work makes you free” and met 32 survivors of the camp at the Wall of Death firing line, whom he consoled. A poignant point in this emotionally charged visit was the Pope’s stop at the cell where Polish Catholic priest Maximilian Kolbe died after volunteering to replace a family man due to be killed. Pope John Paul made Kolbe a saint in 1982.
Late Sunday evening, Pope Benedict left Krakow airport for Rome ending his four-day visit, during which he celebrated huge open-air masses in Warsaw and Krakow, visited Pope John Paul's hometown and prayed at shrines dear to his predecessor. Speaking after he left, Poland's conservative President Lech Kaczynski said the visit had strengthened his resolve to defend Christian values in the European Union.

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