May 28, 2006

Pope asks where God was in Auschwitz horror

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 "in this place of

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.

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


Scattered rain fell 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 "the place of the Shoah."

"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

Before the ceremony, Benedict visited the main Auschwitz
camp, where he walked in under the gateway with the infamous
motto "Arbeit macht frei" (Work makes you free) and met 32 of
the camp's 200,000 survivors at the Wall of Death firing line.

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

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.

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.


In his speech, the Pope twice spoke chilling German phrases
the Nazis used for some enemies -- "lebensunwertes Leben" (life
unworthy of living) for gypsies and "Abschaum der Nation" (scum
of the nation) for anti-Nazi Germans.

He said that, by trying to wipe out the Jews, the Nazis
wanted ultimately "to kill the God who called Abraham, who
spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for
mankind, principles that are eternally valid."

He also recalled Edith Stein, a German Jew who converted to
Christianity, was killed at Auschwitz and later made a saint.

Germans murdered by the Nazis were "witnesses to the truth
and goodness which even among our people were not eclipsed ...
now they stand before us like lights shining in a dark night."

Saying that humanity walked through a "valley of darkness"
at Auschwitz, Benedict ended his speech quoting Psalm 23, "one
of the psalms of Israel which is also a prayer of Christians.

"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," he said. "Even
though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear
no evil; for you are with me."

Before Benedict 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."

Schudrich also paid tribute to all Nazi victims everywhere
and recalled that many righteous people, including many Poles,
had sheltered Jews during the war.