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Pope Francis' Sombre Auschwitz Visit Sees Pontiff Meet Holocaust Survivors

Pope Francis walked through the gates alone, head bowed.

29/07/2016 10:16 | Updated 29 July 2016

Pope Francis paid a sombre visit to Nazi German death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, on Friday, silently walking through its gates alone, head bowed in quiet reflection.  

The Pontiff became the third consecutive pope to make the pilgrimage to the place where Adolf Hitler’s forces killed more than 1 million people, most of them Jews.

Wearing white robe and skullcap, Francis walked slowly beneath the notorious gate at Auschwitz bearing the cynical words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work sets you free).

He was then transported on a small car past barracks and brought to a spot in front, where he sat on a bench, his head bent for many long moments in contemplation and prayer, the Associated Press reported. 

Francis prayed with Poland’s chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich for its 1.1 million victims and met with Holocaust survivors. 

As an Argentine he is the first pope to visit who did not himself live himself through the brutality of World War II on Europe’s soil.

JANEK SKARZYNSKI via Getty Images
Pope Francis walks through the entrance of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in Oswiecim

Both of his predecessors had a personal historical connection to the site, with the first, John Paul II, coming from Poland and himself a witness to the unspeakable suffering inflicted on his nation during the German occupation.

His visit in 1979 made history and was part of the Vatican’s efforts at reconciliation with Jews. Pope Benedict XVI, who visited in 2006, was a German who served in the Hitler Youth for a time as a teenager.

As a pope hailing from afar, Francis’s visit helps to underline the universal importance of a site that in recent years has drawn ever more visitors from around the world.

Vatican and Polish church officials have said he will express his sorrow in silence at the site, mourning the victims in quiet prayer and meditation.

Francis had been scheduled to fly from Krakow to Oswiecim, the small town where the former death camp is located, but due to bad weather traveled the 40 miles (65kms) by car instead.

It is his third day of a five-day visit to Poland that includes meetings with young pilgrims taking part in World Youth Day, a global youth celebration.

Friday is devoted to the theme of suffering. Later in the day Francis will visit a children’s hospital in Krakow and take part in a Way of the Cross with the young people.

  • FILIPPO MONTEFORTE via Getty Images
    Pope Francis walks inside the Auschwitz the former Nazi German Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp on July 29, 2016 in Oswiecim as part of his visit to the World Youth Days
  • FILIPPO MONTEFORTE via Getty Images
    Pope Francis is in Poland for an international Catholic youth festival with a mission to encourage openness to migrants
  • FILIPPO MONTEFORTE via Getty Images
    Pope Francis walks towards the main entrance with the lettering 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work Sets You Free) at the former Nazi German Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp
  • JANEK SKARZYNSKI via Getty Images
    Pope Francis prayed with Poland's chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich for its 1.1 million victims and met with Holocaust survivors
  • Stefano Rellandini / Reuters
    Pope Francis walks through Auschwitz's notorious gate with the sign "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work sets you free) during his visit to the former Nazi death camp
  • JANEK SKARZYNSKI via Getty Images
  • FILIPPO MONTEFORTE via Getty Images
  • David W Cerny / Reuters
    Pope Francis enters block 11 in the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland
  • FILIPPO MONTEFORTE via Getty Images
  • David W Cerny / Reuters
    Pope Francis meets concentration camp survivors in the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland
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