Pope Benedict XVI stepped past barbed-wire fencing Sunday and entered the Auschwitz death camp founded by his countrymen, making a plea for reconciliation and asking why God allowed such “unprecedented horror” to happen.
In one of the most somber, yet simple, gestures of his papacy, Benedict walked under the infamous wrought-iron sign declaring “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes you free”) and past red-brick barracks that once housed doomed and dying Jews, Polish Catholics and other victims of the Nazi Third Reich. It was a silent passage, except for the tolling of church bells and the chirping of birds.
His hands clasped, his face frozen in tight-lipped solemnity, Benedict, who has said he was an unwilling member of the Hitler Youth and, briefly, the Nazi army, stopped before the Wall of Death, a concrete slab where prisoners were executed.
He said a brief prayer, the wind ruffling his plain white vestments, then greeted about 30 elderly survivors of Auschwitz and the neighboring Birkenau killing complex.
“In a place like this, words fail,” Benedict said later at a memorial ceremony in Birkenau. “In the end, there can only be a dread silence -- a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent?
“Yet our silence becomes in turn a plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the living God never to let this happen again.”
At Birkenau, in the shadow of the crematoriums where the Nazis’ captives were incinerated, Benedict paid homage to the many nations whose people died here.
As violins played, a light rain suddenly gave way to a brilliant rainbow over a vast field that was once the site of so much bloodshed.
In coming to the concentration camps where an estimated 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, were slaughtered, Benedict was confronting a number of ghosts that haunt modern-day Europe, including Poland and his homeland.
He said he found it “particularly difficult and troubling” for a Christian and a pope who was a “son of the German people” to venture here.
As a German, he belongs to the nation that perpetrated the Holocaust. As a European Catholic, he belongs to a church that some have accused of complacency, if not complicity, during the Holocaust. And as the pope, he is among the religious authorities who must address the eternal question: How could God let this happen?
“We must continue to cry out humbly yet insistently to God: ‘Rouse yourself! Do not forget mankind, your creature!’ ” Benedict said.
“Let us cry out to God, that he may draw men and women to ... see that violence does not bring peace, but only generates more violence -- a morass of devastation in which everyone is ultimately the loser.”
The camp, he said, demands “purification of memory,” producing “remembrances [that] will foster resistance to evil and the triumph of love.”
His speech raised powerful questions about God’s mercy but remained impersonal despite the remarkable scene of a German pope appearing at a concentration camp.
Benedict did not address any culpability on the part of the war-era Roman Catholic Church, nor did he accept collective guilt on behalf of Germans. He portrayed his countrymen as victims of the Nazis, who he said were “a ring of criminals” that rose to power through false promises, terror and intimidation.
Benedict reaffirmed that the Holocaust was an act of genocide. “The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the Earth,” he said. But he then sought to connect the extermination of the Jews to a desire to destroy Christianity, saying those were the dual goals of the Nazis.
“By destroying Israel with the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.”
Shoah is the Hebrew term for the Holocaust, in which ultimately some 6 million Jews were killed.
Memories of the Holocaust are still raw for many Poles, easily reducing adults to tears and tormenting new generations.
“Where some can’t forget, others don’t want to remember,” Auschwitz survivor Jozef Szajna said before his meeting with the pope. “Forgiveness should come from those whose voices can no longer be heard, those who perished.”
Szajna, 84, was housed in Barrack 11, attached to the Wall of Death. Now an artist and retired theater director who lives in Warsaw, he said his ordeal at Nazi hands robbed him of his Christian faith. When he cried out for God’s help, he said, all he heard was silence.
Henryk Mandelbaum, a round-faced man with thinning hair, was the only Jew among the survivors whom Benedict greeted. While most of the Catholics in the group kissed the pontiff’s ring, it was Benedict who acknowledged Mandelbaum with a kiss on each cheek.
Wanda Sawkiewicz, 79, who was imprisoned in Auschwitz for attempting to take food and medicine to prisoners, marveled at having just met the pope at the Wall of Death.
“I can hardly speak,” she said. “He came up to me, held my hand, and I told him in German that I was very happy. Standing where I was a prisoner, I never thought, I never dreamt that 60 years later I would be meeting a German Holy Father there.”
The memories still make Barbara Ambruszkiewicz sob. Her face contorts and her eyes and nose turn bright pink. She thinks of the mother she never knew, slain in Auschwitz three months after giving birth to her while in Nazi custody, in 1942.
Ambruszkiewicz and her friend, Zofia Lys, two white-haired ladies in raincoats, stood at the Wall of Death, hours ahead of the pope’s arrival. Both are Catholic Poles whose families either opposed Hitler or simply got in the way of the Nazi invasion and occupation of the Polish countryside.
They took photographs and placed a memorial candle. When she met a reporter, Lys immediately pulled up her sleeve to reveal the number the Nazis had tattooed on her forearm.
As a young teenager, Lys survived for two years in Auschwitz and Birkenau, moved from barrack to barrack.
She was mostly used by the Nazis as a worker in a cement factory. On the days she played hooky from work, she saw the worst of the atrocities.
Once, she said, she saw a 5-year-old girl wrenched from her mother’s arms by a Nazi guard and shot, apparently for crying. She saw youngsters thrown into a ditch and set on fire.
Asked further about her memories, she, too, broke down and could not speak.
“I remember everything, everything,” she said, regaining her composure. “I lost my mother, my father, my brothers....”
“We have to tell the world. We are dying out,” Lys, 74, said.
At Auschwitz, after greeting survivors at the Wall of Death, Benedict entered Barrack 11 to visit the soot-covered basement cell of Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan priest whom the Nazis executed after he volunteered to take the place of a Polish prisoner who had a family. Kolbe was made a saint in 1982.
After his visit to Auschwitz, Benedict presided over the Birkenau ceremony before several thousand guests, including survivors and members of Jewish organizations, the concluding act of his four-day trip to Poland.
Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, spoke and chanted the kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer.
In a brutal reminder of the anti-Semitism that still plagues Poland, Schudrich had been assaulted Saturday in Warsaw by a youth shouting, “Poland for the Poles!”
Although he had avoided use of his native German during this trip, out of respect for local sensitivities in a nation that was devastated by Nazi occupation, Benedict chose to deliver his final benediction in German.
“Lord, a heart that seeks conflict cannot understand you. A violent mind cannot understand you.
“May all who live together in peace continue to live together in peace. And may all who live in conflict reconcile.”
Special correspondent Ela Kasprzycka contributed to this report from Warsaw and Birkenau.