Pope meets Poles who saved Jews
Pontiff at Auschwitz where over a million died
POLAND: Pope Francis has met Christian Poles who risked their lives to help Jews during World War II.
One by one, the elderly Poles shook the pope’s hand, some kissing it.
He handed a gift in a small red box to each one.
The encounter at Birkenau was the first time a pope had met with a group of the so-called “Righteous Among the Nations”.
Israel’s Yad Vashem has recognised 6 620 Poles, more than from any other country, as “righteous”.
That reflects the fact that Poland was home to the largest Jewish community in Europe before the Holocaust. Very few of the “righteous” are still living. The survivors were typically teenagers or young adults who worked with their parents to help Jews.
Poland’s chief rabbi prayed a penitential psalm in the presence of Pope Francis at Birkenau, a part of the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau complex where Nazis killed more than a million people, mostly Jews.
Rabbi Michael Schudrich, originally from the US, prayed Psalm 130 in Hebrew, which starts: “From the depths I have cried out to you, O Lord.”
The prayer was then read in Polish by a priest.
During the prayers, Francis clasped his hands and bent his head before a memorial to the victims.
The audience included Auschwitz survivors wearing striped scarves evoking the garb prisoners were forced to wear and Poles who had helped save Jews.
When the pope met a group of survivors he shook their hands, kissed them on the cheek and stroked the heads of some of them.
The meeting took place by the Auschwitz Death Wall, where inmates, chiefly Polish resistance fighters, were executed.
Some of the survivors made Francis offerings that were linked to their suffering.
One offered a copy of a black-and-white picture, indicating he was in it.
Earlier, some of the inmates told reporters they were excited about meeting the pope, a great authority to them.
“This is a huge thing for me,” said 100-year-old Alojzy Fros.
Pope Francis also prayed in the dark underground prison cell at Ausch- witz of a Catholic saint, Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Catholic friar who sacrificed his life during the war to save the life of another man.
A few shafts of light from a tiny window were the only light cast on the white figure of the pope, who knelt for many minutes as he prayed before he crossed himself and rose to his feet.
At the start of his visit he was sombre as he walked beneath the notorious Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free) gate at Auschwitz.
He is the third consecutive pontiff to make the pilgrimage to the place where Adolf Hit- ler’s forces killed more than a million people.
But Francis is the first pope to visit who has no personal connection to the site.
John Paul II hailed from Poland, which was under German occupation, while Benedict XVI was a German. – ANA-AP
Pope Francis walks through a gate bearing the words Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free) at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, yesterday.