May 28, 2006

Pope Benedict visits Auschwitz

By Philip Pullella and Natalia Reiter

OSWIECIM, Poland (Reuters) - Pope Benedict visited the
Auschwitz death camp as "a son of Germany" on Sunday, meeting
former inmates and praying at an execution wall and a
starvation cell where some of the 1.5 million victims died.

The Pontiff, 79, walked under the entry gate's infamous
motto "Arbeit macht frei" (work makes you free) to tour the
main Auschwitz camp, the nerve center for a huge complex
serving Adolf Hitler's "Final Solution" of wiping out European

Solemn-faced among the brick barracks, he prayed and lit a
candle at the Wall of Death, the camp's firing line, and
greeted 32 survivors who lined the courtyard wearing scarves
with the blue and white stripes of a prisoners' outfit.

Many Polish Catholic survivors kissed his papal ring. When
Benedict met German Jewish survivor Henryk Mandelbaum, he
kissed him on both cheeks.

In the starvation cell where a Polish priest died after
volunteering to replace a family man due to be killed, the pope
said in Latin: "Saint Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us."
Benedict's predecessor John Paul made Kolbe a saint in 1982.

Benedict began the last of his four days in Poland with a
huge mass in Krakow, but it was marred by news of an attack on
Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich in Warsaw on Saturday by
a young man shouting "Poland for the Poles!"

Schudrich was due to pray with Benedict later on Sunday.
"This incident is very nasty but let's not let it undermine the
great importance of today's event," he told Reuters.

Recalling that John Paul had visited the camp in 1979,
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters on
Saturday: "John Paul went to Auschwitz as a son of the Polish
people and Benedict is going as the son of the German people."

After the main camp, he visited a nearby center for
dialogue among Poles, Germans and Jews and then went to pray at
the Birkenau section of the camp, where Jews were led from
trains straight to their deaths in gas chambers.


Benedict's visit evoked complex issues of Catholic-Jewish
and Polish-German relations, the mystery of evil and German
guilt for the deaths of 1.5 million people, mostly Jews.

The symbolism was heightened by the fact that Benedict was
involuntarily enrolled in the Hitler Youth organization and
then drafted into an anti-aircraft unit at the end of World War

Benedict, who visited Auschwitz with John Paul in 1979 and
with other German bishops in 1980, has said he saw slave
laborers during his short army service. The brutality of the
Nazi regime helped him decide to be a priest.

The Interior Ministry said it was looking for a 25-year-old
man who may have attacked the New York-born Schudrich, 50, and
added that Saturday's incident might be a "provocation aimed at
creating an image of Poland as an anti-Semitic country."

Earlier on Sunday, Benedict said mass for more than 900,000
people in a field in Krakow where John Paul traditionally held
huge gatherings with his countrymen before returning to Rome.

In his sermon, Benedict urged Poland, which has one of the
world's most active Christian communities, to "share with the
other people of the world the treasure of your faith" as a
fitting and lasting tribute to Pope John Paul.

Many in the crowd were moved to tears. "After John Paul's
death, I thought that such a miracle for a pope to come to
Poland would not repeat itself," said Danuta Latowska, 27. "And
here my dreams and prayers have been fulfilled."

(Additional reporting by Tom Heneghan in Warsaw)