Zofia Radzikowska, whose father was killed at Auschwitz, has never been drawn to look around the site of the Nazi death camp, just 40 miles from her home in Kraków.
“I’ve been four times to conferences or official meetings, but never as a private citizen. I’ve always felt it’s an evil place. I’ve never wanted to do the tour,” Radzikowska, 80, said.
But Pope Francis’s visit to Auschwitz on Friday – where at least 1.1 million people died during the war – will be a significant moment for her and other members of Kraków’s Jewish community.
Accompanied by a group of survivors, the visit is expected to be one of the most powerful moments of the pontiff’s five-day trip to Poland.
“It’s so important to tell the truth about what happened. A man like Pope Francis, who has influence all over the world, needs to see and understand – especially at a time when there is so much hatred in the world,” said Radzikowska.
After the Nazi occupation of Poland began, Radzikowska and her mother managed to get false identity papers and moved from Kraków to a village where no one knew them and they could pass off as Catholics. “I knew I must never, ever admit I was a Jew,” Radzikowska recalled.
Meanwhile her father was taken to the Jewish ghetto and later ended up in Auschwitz, where he died. After the war ended, she said, “we never spoke about what had happened. We survived and that was an end to it. It wasn’t until people from the west came to Poland and started asking questions that we began to remember.”
Some Jews have expressed bitterness that the Catholic church did not make a stronger stand against the Nazi genocide, and some priests encouraged congregations to reveal Jewish hiding places. But Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, has acknowledged more than 6,500 Poles as “righteous gentiles” for risking their lives to save Jews.
“They were very difficult times,” said Radzikowska. “Most people just wanted to survive. I have no bad feelings to Polish Catholics. I used to have very bad feelings towards Germans, but not any more.”
Representatives of Kraków’s Jewish community will meet privately with Pope Francis after the pontiff’s visit to Auschwitz.
Jonathan Ornstein, executive director of the Jewish community centre in Kazimierz, Kraków’s Jewish quarter, said: “I plan to thank him for his stand for the disadvantaged and oppressed. As Jews we are always cognisant of our history and the need to stand up for others. Pope Francis has taken a strong position on this.”
Ninety per cent of those who died at Auschwitz were Jews but thousands of Polish Catholics, Roma and Soviet prisoners of war were also sent to the gas chambers, shot or died of disease, hunger or other causes.
“Auschwitz is the strongest possible signal of what intolerance can lead to,” said Ornstein. “Pope Francis has a unique moral position in the world to speak out forcefully on the side of the oppressed.”
The pope has said he will not make a speech at the site of the death camps. “I would like to go to that place of horror without speeches, without crowds – only the few people necessary. Alone, enter, pray. And may the Lord give me the grace to cry,” he said last month.
Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, has said the pope’s visit would set “an example to humanity”. He welcomed the pope’s intention to remain silent: “You have to remain silent when you are there, to then shout out loud to the world about what you have seen.”
According to Jakub Nowakowski, director of the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków, the postwar communist era was “not a time when wounds could be healed. Instead of education and commemoration, there was oblivion.”
Most of Poland’s Jewish population had died, and those that survived often hid their Jewish identity. “Jews had to make a choice: continue being Jewish elsewhere, or stay but stop being outwardly Jewish. Many went underground and changed their names,” said Ornstein.
“Now their descendants are finding out, sometimes with deathbed confessions from grandparents. And these young people are taking action to explore their Jewish heritage.”
Nowakowski said: “There’s a new generation of Polish Jews who are proud to be Jewish.”
The pope’s visit would remind people of Auschwitz’s unique place in history, he added. “You get tourists who say they’re disappointed that there aren’t any interactive multimedia experiences. But we need to simply remember, and Francis’s visit – his prayers and contemplation – will help people do that.”
According to Ornstein, it was a symbol of hope that “down the road from Auschwitz, the epicentre of the Holocaust, we now have a thriving and growing Jewish community once again”.
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