OSWIECIM, Poland — Calling himself “a son of Germany,” Pope Benedict XVI 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 darkness.”
Ending a four-day pilgrimage to Poland, Benedict said humans could not fathom “this endless slaughter” but only seek reconciliation for those who suffered “in this place of horror.”
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.
‘Where was God?’
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 creature!”
A single candle
Before the ceremony, Benedict’s black-clad entourage kept its distance as he walked under the notorious words, “Arbeit Macht Frei” or, “Work Sets You Free.”
Other than a brief greeting to the local bishop, Benedict kept silent, his lips moving in prayer and the wind tossing his white hair as he stopped before the execution wall where the Nazis killed prisoners.
Then, he was handed a lighted candle, which he placed before the wall.
A line of elderly camp survivors awaited him in the courtyard. He moved slowly down the line, stopping to talk with each, taking one woman’s face in his hands. He also visited a underground cell that held Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who traded his life for that of a married man at Auschwitz in 1941. Kolbe was canonized by John Paul in 1982.
Video: Papal visit This was the third time Benedict has visited Auschwitz and the neighboring camp at Birkenau. The first was in 1979, when he accompanied John Paul, and in 1980, when he came with a group of German bishops while he was archbishop of Munich.
Earlier, the pontiff urged some 900,000 Poles gathered in a rain-soaked field Sunday to share their faith with other countries in mostly secular Europe, saying it was the best way to honor their beloved John Paul II.
The huge crowd sang, clapped and waved yellow and white Vatican flags during the Mass in Blonia meadow, the same spot where John Paul drew large crowds on his trips to Krakow, where he served as archbishop before becoming pope.
It was the first time during Benedict’s four-day trip that he drew a crowd size comparable to those John Paul attracted during visits to his homeland. Benedict has won applause for encouraging prayers for John Paul’s canonization, and for saying he hopes it will happen “in the near future.”
“I ask you, finally, to share with the other peoples of Europe and the world, not least as a way of honoring the memory of your countryman, who, as the successor of St. Peter, did this with extraordinary power and effectiveness,” said Benedict as he concluded his homily.
“I ask you to stand firm in your faith. Stand firm in your hope. Stand firm in your love. Amen!” he concluded, speaking in Polish on the last day of his trip.
Benedict has appealed to Poland to serve as a beacon of faith in a Europe that has become mostly secular. The country joined the European Union only two years ago, 15 years after the collapse of communist rule.
Chilling Nazy terminology
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.
Schudrich also paid tribute to all Nazi victims everywhere and recalled that many righteous people, including many Poles, had sheltered Jews during the war.
The New York-born rabbi was attacked on a Warsaw street on Saturday by a young man shouting “Poland is for Poles.”
Police said Schudrich was unhurt and the assailant fled, and that they were treating it as a possible anti-Semitic attack.
The 79-year-old pope has reached out to Poles by delivering parts of his speeches and homilies in Polish, and by retracing beloved native son John Paul’s steps, including a visit his birthplace of Wadowice.
Benedict made a triumphant entrance in his popemobile, riding through a sea of flags — red and white for Poland, yellow and white for the Vatican — with the choir singing the refrain, “Poland welcomes you, Poland thanks you.”
Some people spent the rainy night in the meadow waiting for Benedict, while others arrived with umbrellas, rain jackets and folding chairs. Police estimated the crowd size at 900,000.
The mood at the Mass was cheerful despite the wet weather.
“We didn’t mind the rain last night,” said 21-year-old Katarzyna Dadek from Jaslo who slept in her car waiting for Sunday’s Mass. “At least we’ll have something to tell our children.”
‘A great, great experience’
Kamila Wrobel, 16, spent the night in the meadow and got soaking wet, but felt it was worth it. She rode four hours with her Catholic youth group from the town of Debica, and was present for John Paul’s Mass in the meadow in 2002.
“The pope is probably in Poland for the first and last time,” she said. “This is a great, great experience filled with emotion.
“When he says something in Polish, then the atmosphere becomes really very special,” she said.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.