Photo: AP
Pope Benedict. Symbolic visit
Photo: AP
Auschwitz death camp
Photo: Reuters
Pope visits Auschwitz
Benedict XVI, who was member of Nazi youth movement as child, to pray for peace at death camp

Pope Benedict visits Auschwitz on Sunday to pray for peace as the head of the world's 1 billion Catholics and a "son of Germany" whose countrymen set up and ran World War Two's most infamous death camp.


Any visit by a Pontiff to a camp where nearly 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered is a highly charged event, evoking such complex issues as Christian-Jewish relations, German guilt and the evil in the world.


The symbolism is heightened by the fact that Benedict, 79, is a German who was involuntarily enrolled in the Hitler Youth paramilitary organization and then drafted into an anti-aircraft unit toward the end of World War Two.


Benedict, who visited Auschwitz with his Polish predecessor John Paul in 1979 and with other German bishops in 1980, has said he saw slave laborers during his short army service. The brutality of the Nazi regime helped him decide to be a priest.


"John Paul went to Auschwitz as a son of the Polish people and Benedict is going as the son of the German people," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters on Saturday.


Navarro-Valls said that Benedict insisted that he visit Auschwitz during his four-day trip to Poland, which ends on Sunday after a sentimental journey to the cities and shrines central to his predecessor's life and spirituality.


Benedict will walk through Auschwitz's notorious gate with the phrase "Arbeit Macht Frei" (work sets you free), meet former inmates and Jewish groups and visit a Catholic educational Center for Dialogue and Prayer near the camp.


He then visits Birkenau, the second part of the Auschwitz complex where Jews transported from around Europe were sent from their trains to the gas chambers. The main building and tracks remain but Nazis blew up the gas chambers when they fled.


After prayers in several languages and the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, Benedict will pray for peace in German, light a candle and deliver a speech in Italian.


Atomic bomb of hatred


Some Jewish groups objected to German being spoken at length in Auschwitz. Benedict has avoided speaking his native tongue during his tour, to avoid hurting Polish and Jewish sensitivities, but wanted to use it for his final prayer.


Regarded as the largest Jewish graveyard in the world, Auschwitz was the centerpiece of Adolf Hitler's "Final Solution" to exterminate Europe's Jews more than 60 years ago.


"This place reflected the empire of evil, it was an atomic bomb of hatred," former Israeli ambassador to Poland and Knesset speaker Szewach Weiss told private Polish television TVN24.


"The fact that a German Pope will be there, well it only shows that God is an interesting (stage) director."


Israeli statesman and Nobel Peace prize winner Shimon Peres told Reuters last month that Iran's fiery anti-Israeli rhetoric, reminiscent

of Hitler's calls to wipe Jews off the face of the earth, has added significance to Benedict's visit to Auschwitz.


During the war, Benedict's anti-aircraft unit defended a BMW factory near Munich making aircraft engines.

There he saw slave laborers from nearby concentration camp Dachau being brought in to work. Later, when he was posted on the Hungarian border setting up tank traps, he said he saw Jews being rounded up for transport to death camps.


"The abyss of Hitlerism could not be overlooked," he said.


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