Pope Francis paid a somber visit to the Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau Friday morning, becoming the third consecutive pontiff to make the pilgrimage to the place where Adolf Hitler’s forces slaughtered more than 1 million people, most of them Jews, Hy”d.
Upon arrival, Francis walked slowly beneath the notorious gate at Auschwitz bearing the cynical words “Arbeit Macht Frei.” He was then transported on a small car past barracks.
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. 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 historical 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.
Francis had been scheduled to fly from Cracow to Oswiecim, the small town where the former death camp is located, but due to bad weather traveled the 40 miles by car instead.
It is the third day of his five-day visit to Poland.