Image: www.cbc.ca

Pope Francis visits Auschwitz death camp                                 Image: www.cbc.ca

Pope Francis prayed on Friday near the gate to the Auschwitz death camp site in Poland, and asked God to forgive ‘so much cruelty.’

A report by Vatican officials said the visit was a tribute to 1.5 million people, most of them Jews, gassed there by Nazi occupiers during World War II.

It said Francis, on the third day of his trip to Poland for the international gathering of Catholic youths, exchanged gifts with the Auschwitz survivors, including a 101-year old woman.

The Argentine-born pontiff, 79, made no statement as he proceeded to walk through the barely-lit corridors of the drab, brick building of Auschwitz Block 11 which had housed prisoners selected for special punishment.

The report said that before his trip, Francis said he had decided that silence in prayer was the best way to pay tribute to those who died.

It said that Francis also visited the underground cell where Franciscan monk, Maksymilian Kolbe, was killed after offering his life to save a Polish man whom camp handlers had picked to die of starvation.

In Auschwitz’s commemorative book, Francis wrote in Spanish: “Lord, have mercy on your people. Lord, forgiveness for so much cruelty.’’

Francis, on Friday, the 75th anniversary of Kolbe’s sacrifice, also visited Birkenau, a part of the camp where most of the killings were committed in gas chambers.

He walked solemnly past guard towers, barbed wire fences and remains of crematoria that the Nazis blew up before the camp was liberated by the Soviet Red Army on Jan. 27, 1945.

German occupation forces set up the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp during World War II in Oswiecim, a town around 70 km (43 miles) from Poland’s second city, Krakow, in the country’s south.

Between 1940 and 1945, Auschwitz developed into a vast complex of barracks, workshops, gas chambers and crematoria.

On July 29, 1941, the camp director, in reprisal for the escape of a prisoner, chose 10 others and sentenced them to death by starvation.

When the selection was completed, Kolbe stepped forward and volunteered to die in place of one of them, Franciszek Gajowniczek.

Kolbe was later killed by lethal injection but the man he saved survived the war.

Kolbe was made a saint in 1982 by then-Pope John Paul II, a Pole.

Author: Cerebral Lemon