Pope Francis paid a somber visit to the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau Friday, becoming the third consecutive pontiff to make the pilgrimage to the place where Adolf Hitler's forces killed more than 1 million people, most of them Jews. Francis entered the camp on foot, walking slowly beneath the notorious gate at Auschwitz bearing the cynical words "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("work sets you free"). He prayed silently for more than 15 minutes before meeting with several survivors of the camp, greeting them one by one, shaking their hands, and kissing them on the cheeks, the AP reports. He then carried a large white candle and placed it at the Death Wall, where prisoners were executed.
In the dark underground prison cell that once housed St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Catholic friar who sacrificed his own life to save the life of another man, Francis prayed again, kneeling for many minutes before he crossed himself and rose to his feet. As an Argentine, he is the first pope to visit Auschwitz who did not himself live through the brutality of World War II on Europe's soil. Francis' visit was also different in its private character, with no speeches planned. It marks a difference from the visit by Benedict, who spoke in Italian—avoiding his native German language—in a speech in which he questioned why God was silent at the slaughter of so many. Vatican and Polish church officials explained that Francis wanted to express his sorrow in silence at the site, mourning the victims in quiet prayer and meditation.