His head bowed, the pope prayed in silent contemplation before meeting Holocaust survivors — some of whom he tenderly kissed — in front of the death wall where the Nazis summarily executed thousands of people by firing squad.
Among the survivors he met were Helena Dunicz Niwinska, a 101-year-old woman who played the violin in the Auschwitz orchestra, as well as survivors who worked at the camp hospital or who were there as children.
Francis lit a candle in front of the death wall, bowing his head in prayer before visiting the cell of Polish priest and saint Maximilian Kolbe who died at Auschwitz after taking the place of a condemned man.
The visit falls on the 75th anniversary of the day Kolbe was condemned to death.
The Argentine will later lead prayers for the 1.1 million mostly-Jewish victims murdered at the camp.
Ahead of his visit Francis said that rather than making a speech, he would stand in silence to reflect on the horrors committed and let his tears flow.
After arriving Wednesday in Poland — the heartland of Nazi Germany’s atrocities — the pontiff said the world had been plunged into a piecemeal third world war.
He has repeatedly denounced those committing crimes in the name of religion, after Europe suffered a string of deadly jihadist attacks.
The pontiff has forged ever-closer ties between the Catholic Church and Jews since his election in 2013.
As the morning rain subsided and the sun began to shine, around 200 people gathered by a big screen in Birkenau to await his arrival, among them a group of elderly Poles known as the “righteous among the nations” who risked their lives to help hide and protects Jews during the Holocaust.
Prayers will be said just a stone’s throw from the ruins of one of the crematoriums which was blown up by the Nazis as they evacuated the camp.
– ‘Scream against injustice’ –
Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich welcomed the pontiff’s intention to remain silent during his visit to the camp, saying “often people go to Auschwitz… and they are silent (about the horrors) for the rest of their lives”.
“Instead, once we leave Birkenau we must spend the rest of our lives screaming, yelling and fighting all kinds of injustices,” he said Thursday.
The pope will travel the two miles (three kilometres) to Birkenau, the main extermination site, and be driven along tracks laid in 1944 to allow trains of prisoners to be transported directly to the gas chambers and crematoria.
There, some 25 Christian Poles who risked their lives during the war to help hide and protect Jews — a group recognised by Israel’s Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations” — will tell their stories to the pope.
Among them will be Maria Augustyn, whose family hid a Jewish couple behind a wardrobe for years, and Anna Bando, who helped rescue an orphan from the Warsaw ghetto and gave several Jews forged “Aryan” papers.
A Hebrew prayer for the dead will be read aloud in Polish by Stanislaw Ruszala, Catholic parish priest of the town of Markowa, where a family was wiped out after they were discovered to be sheltering Jews.
Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma and their seven children were butchered. Wiktoria, who was seven months pregnant at the time, had started giving birth before she was executed, according to the Vatican.
More than 100,000 non-Jewish Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, homosexuals and anti-Nazi partisans also died at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in occupied Poland. The Soviet Red Army liberated it in 1945.
Two of the pope’s predecessors also visited the camp: John Paul II — a former archbishop of Krakow — in 1979 and Benedict XVI in 2006.