Deutsche Presse Agentur

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Oswiecim, Poland – Pope Benedict XVI made an urgent plea for global peace and reconciliation Sunday during a landmark visit as the first German-born pontiff to the former Nazi German twin death camps Auschwitz-Birkenau where up to 1.5 million people, mostly European Jews, were murdered during the Second World War.

‘I have come here today to implore the grace of reconciliation first from God, who alone can purify our hearts and from the men and women who have suffered here,’ the 79-year-old pontiff said at a Sunday prayer ceremony held under the brilliant arc of a rainbow which appeared in the sky over the notorious Birkenau death camp, Auschwitz II.

‘And I ask for the grace of reconciliation for all who in this moment suffer in new ways under the power of hatred and hate-induced violence,’ he said.

‘To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man, is almost impossible,’ said the pontiff.

‘And it is particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian for a Pope from Germany,’ he added.

As a fourteen year-old, the future pope Joseph Ratzinger became a member of the then mandatory Hitler Jugend, the youth-wing of the Nazi party in Second World War Germany. Biographical accounts, however, insist he was an unwilling member and that his Bavarian Catholic family remained strongly opposed to the Nazi regime.

Earlier the German-born pontiff walked through the Auschwitz camp’s infamous black wrought-iron ‘Arbeit Macht Frei'(Work makes you free) gate.

He then removed his white papal skull-cap and solemnly prayed and placed a single candle given to him by Auschwitz survivors in front of the camp’s stark Wall of Death where countless prisoners had been executed.

Pope Benedict follows in the footsteps of Polish-born Pope John Paul II who in 1979 was the first Roman Catholic pontiff to visit Auschwitz, the site of the world’s most horrific and systematic genocide. As Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict also accompanied John Paul then.

‘It was impossible not to come here. It was and is a duty towards those who suffered here, a duty towards God to stand here as successor of John Paul II and as a son of the German people,’ the pontiff said Sunday.

Synonymous with the death of more than 6 million European Jews in the Holocaust, Auschwitz-Birkenau was established at Nazi-occupied Oswiecim, southern Poland, in June 1940 by the Nazis.

On January 27, 1945 Soviet Red Army troops liberated several thousand prisoners, including hundreds of children that fleeing German forces had left behind for dead.

The twin camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau became Nazi Germany’s largest death camps, a key element in Adolf Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ plan to kill Europe’s estimated 11 million ethnic Jews.

Between 1.1 and 1.5 million people perished at the camp, either asphyxiated with Zyklon B gas in its notorious gas chambers or dying from starvation, disease or exhaustion, according the Auschwitz- Birkenau State Museum.

Ninety per cent of the victims were European Jews – men, women and children. Historians estimate that up to 150,000 ethnic Poles were imprisoned at the camp, mostly for armed partisan resistance and sabotage against Nazi forces. Used as slave labourers, approximately half died there.

Like Europe’s Jews, European Roma, or gypsies, were also targeted for annihilation by Nazi Germany. Up to 1944 some 23,000 European Roma were deported to Auschwitz. Estimates say only some 2,000 survived. Of the roughly one million Roma living in Europe prior to World War II, historians estimate the Nazis killed more than half.

Soviet prisoners, anti-Nazi German citizens, French resistance fighters, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses were among the camp’s other prisoner and victims.

Historians point out Auschwitz-Birkenau was one of six Nazi death camps expressly set up to murder European Jews.

However, all told, historical record shows that between 1933-1945, Hitler’s regime set up more than 1,500 concentration camps and 900 labour camps where prisoners were held and, more often than not, exploited until death.

Known for her therapeutic work with Auschwitz survivors renowned Krakow-based Polish psychotherapist Professor Maria Orwid, herself a Polish-Jew child Holocaust survivor, describes the anti-Semitism and anti-humanism which gave rise to the gas chambers of Auschwitz and the Holocaust as a ‘collapse of human civilisation’.

‘The Holocaust is not only a Jewish matter, it is an issue concerning all mankind,’ she noted in a special address to child Holocaust survivors – among them survivors of Auschwitz. ‘It was a collapse of human civilisation – the failure of millennia of human civilisation, thought, morality, religion and all value systems.’

Auschwitz survivor Jozef Szajna, 84, a renown Polish artist, painter, award-winning play-write and director of the vibrant, experimental Warsaw Theatre ‘Teatr Studio’, echoes Orwid’s view.

He was among the camp survivors invited to meet Pope Benedict XVI at Auschwitz Sunday. Tattooed with the number 18,729, Szajna was held as a political prisoner in Auschwitz from 1941 to January 1944.

‘This is an optimistic gesture aimed at reconciliation between nations and between people,’ he told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa, describing Pope Benedict XVI call for peace and reconciliation at the camp.

‘It builds international and interpersonal trust and without mutual trust, reconciliation is incomplete and global peace is impossible,’ said Szajna. ‘It is the right step in the right direction towards a catharsis, and the world needs a catharsis on this issue.’

Szajna himself has called for establishment of an inter-active peace memorial at the twin Auschwitz-Birkenau camps. According to his idea, visitors to Auschwitz would bring stones from their homelands to build a mound of ‘memory and reconciliation,’ as a symbolic foundation for world peace.

As an Auschwitz survivor he also insists that difficult questions about the apparent indifference of the Allies and the rest of the world toward the Holocaust must be asked and answered in order to come to terms with, and prevent genocide.

‘The Allies, England and America knew about Auschwitz, but they did nothing – they did not bomb the railway lines leading to it, or the gas chambers to stop the systematic killing,’ Szajna asks.

‘Why, were they indifferent? And why Chechnya? Why Rwanda? Why ethnic cleansing in Srebrenica? Why?’