, Oswiecim, Poland, Jul 29 – Former prisoners at Nazi Germany’s most notorious extermination camp met with Pope Francis Friday as he visited Auschwitz-Birkenau to pray for the 1.1 million people, most of them Jewish, murdered there in World War II.
“I feel like the Pope came especially to see me,” said Janina Iwanska, 86, who was brought to the camp as a teenager following the failed Warsaw Uprising against Adolf Hitler’s forces in 1944.
Fellow survivor Alojzy Fros, who turns 100 this year, said the memories of death were seared into his mind.
“Through an open door I saw naked bodies piled up like logs about a metre high,” he told AFP. “I’ll never forget it”.
Some were visibly moved by their return to the site, now a museum and memorial, in the company of the pontiff. He walked alone through the notorious wrought-iron “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free) gate in silence.
With her petite figure and halo of white hair, Helena Dunicz Niwinska, at 101, was the eldest survivor to meet Francis. While a prisoner she had played violin in the Auschwitz orchestra.
She ended up in the camp after being arrested in what was then the Polish city of Lwow — now Lviv in Ukraine — along with her mother, who died at Auschwitz.
Later Dunicz Niwinska was transferred to the camp in Ravensbruck during a “death march” — forced movements of prisoners used by the Nazis to weaken and kill off as many of their victims as possible.
“The pope is too good,” said fellow survivor Walentyna Nikodem, who was born in 1922.
– Difficult to forgive –
“Love for one’s neighbour is one thing, but sinners must be punished. When someone kills us, we have to defend ourselves,” she said, questioning the Christian axiom of responding to evil with forgiveness.
Nikodem’s mother was executed in the camp in revenge for her father having killed a Gestapo policeman.
Francis prayed near the ruins of a crematorium blown up by the Nazis as they fled the camp, before meeting Christian Poles who risked their lives during the war to help hide and protect Jews.
The group, recognised by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum as “Righteous Among the Nations”, included Maria Augustyn, whose family hid a Jewish couple behind a wardrobe for years.
Anna Bando helped rescue an orphan from the Warsaw ghetto and gave several Jews forged “Aryan” papers, while Witold Lisowski saved a young man who had managed to escape from a concentration camp transport.
He fed, clothed and protected him for two years, first at his house then in a hiding place in a nearby wood.
Fellow “Righteous Among the Nations” Ryszard Zielinski told AFP the encounter with Francis had meant a lot.
“We shook hands and he looked me in the eyes in a lovely way and gave me a good memory to take away”.
Those who helped people persecuted by the Nazis sometimes paid the ultimate price.
Catholic priest Stanislaw Ruszala, who read a Hebrew prayer in Polish during Francis’s visit, hails from the town of Markowa where a family was wiped out for sheltering Jews.
Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma, their seven children and the Jews they were hiding were all butchered. Wiktoria, who was seven months’ pregnant at the time, had started giving birth before she was executed, the Vatican said.