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Auschwitz Address Ends Pope's Visit to Poland

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Today, Pope Benedict XVI wrapped up his four day visit to Poland, the home of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. The Pope visited the infamous Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp where Nazis killed one and a half million people there, mostly Jews.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Krakow.

(Soundbite of bells chiming)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

Bells chimed as the pope entered Auschwitz on foot. Clasping his hands, he passed under the infamous gate with the words Arbeit Macht Frei, Work Sets You Free. Keeping silent, his lips moving in prayer, Benedict stopped for a full minute before the Wall of Death, where Nazis routinely executed prisoners.

Waiting there was a line of 32 elderly death camp survivors, most of them Catholic. Benedict, who had been unwillingly drafted into the Hitler Youth, spoke with each survivor. Some kissed his hand. He responded, caressing their faces.

The focal point of this historic visit came Berkenau, the other part of the compound where Jews transported from all over Europe were sent from their trains to the gas chambers. Benedict prayed under light rain before plaques in the languages of the different nationalities who died there.

An interfaith prayer service included the Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer.

(Soundbite of prayer)

POGGIOLI: Then the cantor listed the names of all the Nazi death camps.

(Soundbite of cantor)

POGGIOLI: Then, as a huge rainbow appeared in the sky, Benedict delivered his closing words. He chose Italian rather than his native German out of respect for Polish and Jewish sensitivities.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: (Through Translator) To speak in this place, where unprecedented mass crimes against God and man, is almost impossible. And it is particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a Pope from Germany.

POGGIOLI: Benedict referred to himself 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. He said he came to implore the grace of reconciliation.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: (Through Translator) The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the Earth. Deep down, those vicious criminals wanted to kill God.

POGGIOLI: Benedict twice uttered the Jewish word for Holocaust that had not appeared in the prepared text.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: (Through Translator) By destroying Israel with the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and replace it with a faith of their own invention. Faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.

POGGIOLI: Quoting his predecessor, John Paul II, Benedict referred to the importance of the purification of memory in order to stand firm in the Catholic faith. That, in fact, was the motto of Benedict's entire visit to Poland.

In his homily earlier today before a crowd of 900,000 people in Krakow, he said he had come to Poland to inhale the air of John Paul's homeland and to experience the faith of the Polish people.

The Pope said that when John Paul was elected, Poland became a special witness to faith in Jesus Christ, and he urged Poles to share with the other peoples of Europe and the world the treasure of their faith.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News. Krakow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.
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