On Sunday afternoon, Benedict XVI travelled by car from the archbishop's palace in Krakow to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps, on the last stage of his apostolic trip to Poland.
The Pope walked into the Auschwitz concentration camp, passing under the words "Arbeit Macht Frei" (work makes you free) written over the gate. He visited the courtyard surrounding the Wall of Death, where prisoners used to be summarily executed, and met with former inmates. He also visited the cell where St. Maximilian Kolbe died, in the cellar of block 11.
The Holy Father then travelled by car to the center for dialogue and prayer, a Catholic institution established near the camp, upon which he bestowed his apostolic blessing. Returning to his car, he journeyed three kilometers to the camp of Birkenau, the largest extermination camp set up by the National Socialist Governement during the World War II.
Upon arriving there, the Pope first paused before the 22 bronze slabs that symbolically commemorate the victims of the Holocaust in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. He also met with representatives of other religions and with a group of concentration camp survivors of various nationalities.
The Pope prayed for the victims and listened to the Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer of mourning, before delivering his address:
"To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man, is almost impossible - and it is particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a Pope from Germany," said Benedict XVI.
"In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence - a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did You remain silent? How could You tolerate all this? In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here; yet our silence becomes in turn a plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the living God never to let this happen again."
The Pope recalled the visit of John Paul II, who "came here as a son of that people which, along with the Jewish people, suffered most in this place and, in general, throughout the war. 'Six million Poles lost their lives during the Second World War: a fifth of the nation,' he reminded us. Here too he solemnly called for respect for human rights and the rights of nations."
"John Paul II came here as a son of the Polish people. I come here today as a son of the German people. For this very reason, I can and must echo his words: I could not fail to come here. I had to come. It is a duty before the truth, and the just due of all who suffered here, a duty before God, for me to come here as the successor of John Paul II and as a son of the German people - a son of that people over which a ring of criminals rose to power by false promises of future greatness and the recovery of the nation's honor, prominence and prosperity, but also through terror and intimidation, with the result that our people was used and abused as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power."
"How many questions arise in this place!" the Holy Father cried. "Constantly the question comes up: Where was God in those days? ... How could He permit this endless slaughter, this triumph of evil?"
"Let us cry out to God- he continued- with all our hearts, at the present hour, when new misfortunes befall us, when all the forces of darkness seem to issue anew from human hearts: whether it is the abuse of God's name as a means of justifying senseless violence against innocent persons, or the cynicism which refuses to acknowledge God and ridicules faith in Him."