May 28, 2006

Pope asks why God was silent at Auschwitz

By Philip Pullella and Natalia Reiter

OSWIECIM, Poland (Reuters) - Calling himself "a son of
Germany," Pope Benedict prayed at the former Nazi death camp of
Auschwitz on Sunday and asked why God was silent when 1.5
million victims, mostly Jews, died in this "valley of

Ending a four-day pilgrimage to Poland, Benedict, 79, said
humans could not fathom "this endless slaughter" but only seek
reconciliation for those who suffered then and those who now
"are suffering in new ways from the power of hatred."

As on the rest of his trip, he walked in the footsteps of
his Polish-born predecessor John Paul, who came to the camp in
1979 on his first visit to Poland as pope. John Paul died in
April 2005 and is revered as a saint in his native country.

"Pope John Paul II came here as a son of the Polish people.
I come here today as a son of the German people," Benedict said
in Italian at a monument near the ruins of a crematorium at
Birkenau, the death camp section of the Auschwitz complex.

"I could not fail to come here," he said, gazing down the
railway tracks that brought Jews in cattle cars to their death.
"I had to come. It is a duty before the truth and the just due
of all who suffered here, a duty before God."

The leader of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics also
prayed for peace in his native German, which he has avoided to
not hurt Polish and Jewish sensitivities. He was forced to join
the Hitler Youth and drafted into the army during the war.


Before the ceremony, Benedict visited the main Auschwitz
camp, where the Nazis executed or starved special prisoners.

He walked in under the camp's gateway with the motto
"Arbeit macht frei" (Work makes you free) and proceeded to the
Wall of Death firing line, where he met 32 of 200,000

Many were Polish Catholics who kissed his papal ring.
Benedict kissed a Jewish survivor, Henryk Mandelbaum, on both

He also prayed in the cell where Polish priest Maximilian
Kolbe died in 1941 after volunteering to replace a family man
due to be killed. John Paul made Kolbe a saint in 1982.

Rain fell sporadically over Auschwitz until the main
ceremony, when the skies cleared and a rainbow appeared.

Benedict said it was almost impossible, particularly for a
German Pope, to speak at such a horrible place.

"The place where we are standing is a place of memory and
at the same time, it is the place of the Shoah," he said.

"In a place like this, words fail. In the end, there can
only be a dread 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?"

Benedict, one of the Church's leading theologians, said
humans could not "peer into God's mysterious plan" to
understand such evil, but only "cry out humbly yet insistently
to God -- 'rouse yourself! Do not forget mankind, your

Alojzy Maciak, a Polish Auschwitz survivor, said Poles did
not hold Benedict's nationality against him.

"We have forgiven the Germans a long time ago," he said at
the Birkenau ceremony. "This is a visit by a Pope to Auschwitz,
his nationality is not important."

Before he spoke, Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich
chanted the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. The New
York-born rabbi was attacked on a Warsaw street on Saturday by
a young man shouting "Poland is for Poles."

"This incident is very nasty but let's not let it undermine
the great importance of today's event," he told Reuters.

Lodz Chief Rabbi Symcha Keller, whose grandfather survived
Auschwitz, said the attack showed people still had to be taught
the dangers of racial hatred. "That is why Pope Benedict's
visit to this grave site is so important," he said.

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.