WARSAW, Poland – Pope Francis' visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau on Friday included an encounter with 25 Christian Poles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust — a powerfully symbolic meeting that Poland's chief rabbi played a key role in orchestrating.
Rabbi Michael Schudrich, originally from the United States, had long hoped to see such a meeting in Poland between a pope and some of the remaining Poles who risked their own lives during the world to give aid to Jews.
Yad Vashem in Israel has recognized 6,620 Polish gentiles who sheltered Jews, so-called "Righteous Among the Nations." Today fewer than 240 are still alive.
Remembering their sacrifices is an important part of Schudrich's mission as head of Poland's Jewish community, and he has often said that one can never do enough for them.
"This is something I have been thinking about for a while: what kind of non-material present, what kind of thank-you, can we give to the Righteous?" Schudrich told The Associated Press by phone on Friday shortly after he recited a psalm at Auschwitz-Birkenau in the presence of the pope.
He noted that a U. S. group, the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, offers them some financial help. "But I wanted to come up with a spiritual gift and I thought that a special blessing from the pope would make them feel honored because of their unbelievable morality and humanity," he said.
He said he approached members of the church hierarchy several months ago with the idea of including a meeting during the pope's visit to Poland this week.
They were receptive and then they all got down to the business of organizing the meeting, which happened Friday during the pope's visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Schudrich had tried to arrange a meeting between a group of Righteous and Benedict when that pope visited Poland in 2006, but it did not work out. John Paul II had met with some at the Vatican during his papacy, but it was the first such encounter at one of the former death camps.
Francis met with them one by one and presented each one with a gift in a small red box.
Schudrich said he was grateful that the pope met with the Righteous and also valued his silent homage to the victims of the camp, most of whom were Jewish.
Afterward, when he met Francis briefly, he said he told him: "thank you for your prayer of silence."
In return, the pope told him "pray for me," Schudrich said.