WARSAW, Poland – Poland has been preparing an enthusiastic welcome for German-born Pope Benedict XVI, who on Thursday begins a four-day trip to his predecessor's homeland, including a symbolic visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp.
At Warsaw's All Saint's Church, outdoor vendors have started hawking rosaries and papal flags, and a banner showing a smiling Benedict reads: "Welcome Benedict XVI. Holy Father, strengthen our faith!"
But one challenge facing Benedict was apparent just below the banner, where worshippers have created an unofficial shrine at a statue of Polish-born John Paul II, surrounding it with fresh flowers and burning candles.
Benedict must connect with a nation that for 26 years grew accustomed to a warm and charismatic Pole at the head of the church — a man embraced as "our pope" and who in death is already viewed as a saint by many in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country.
"For a whole generation of Poles, this will be a dramatic change — for the first time they will see a pope who isn't Polish," said Edmund Wnuk-Lipinski, a sociologist with the Polish Academy of Sciences. "My guess is that they will react in a very warm way as long as the pope sends the message that he will continue the kind of relationship with the youth that John Paul II established."
"But to what extent he will be successful — because he's not as charismatic, he's more intellectual — we will see."
And many will be watching on Sunday, the last day of Benedict's visit, when he prays at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the former Nazi extermination complex in southern Poland that stands as the contemporary world's great symbol of genocide and terror.
That Benedict — who was enrolled in Hitler Youth as a teen but deserted the German army near the end of World War II — will say a prayer in German at the place Hitler's regime murdered up to 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, carries a symbolic meaning that promises to make the visit historic.
Jews and many others will welcome the gesture as an important moment in Benedict's mission to carry on the Jewish-Catholic reconciliation begun by John Paul, who within a year of his election prayed at Auschwitz.
"I believe that this visit has the opportunity to even take the reconciliation and dialogue to a much higher level," said Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, who will say a Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, during the ceremony.
Rafael Feferman, 79, a Holocaust survivor who lost his mother, father, brother and sister in the death camps, said he would follow the visit from his home in Forest Hills, New York. He forgives Benedict for serving in Hitler's army, he said, but does expect the pope to admit the Vatican could have done more to save Jews.
"The biggest thing for me is for him to keep to what John Paul said — that Christians should pray for forgiveness for what they did, and that Jews should be seen as their older brothers," Feferman said.
With every gesture symbolic, Benedict will walk into the Auschwitz death camp, dropping initial plans to enter by car, a Polish church official, Rev. Stanislaw Lubaszka, said Monday.
Benedict had planned to ride through the Auschwitz gate, which is topped with the infamous words "Arbeit macht Frei" — Work Sets You Free — in his pope-mobile. But Polish organizers pointed out that Nazi commanders and troops drove through the gate, while inmates were forced to walk.
Poland suffered a brutal occupation at Nazi hands, and lost an estimated 6 million people during the war, about half of them Jews.
"My grandparents don't like him," said Magda Korczynska, 21, a student at Warsaw University. "To them, it doesn't matter that he's the pope. He's German and that's enough to dislike him. But for young people like me this doesn't matter."
Indeed for most, Benedict's nationality plays little role, and he has won hearts in Poland, for having worked closely with John Paul and for pledging to continue John Paul's teachings. Polish television also shows him greeting Polish pilgrims at St. Peter's Square each week with a few phrases in their language.
His trip to Poland will have him retrace the footsteps of his predecessor with a stop in John Paul's hometown of Wadowice and other sites loved by the late pontiff, including the shines at Jasna Gora and Kalwaria Zebrzydowska.
Still, many admit they do not feel the same enthusiasm that infused the nation before John Paul's nine visits as pope.
"I am curious and very interested in Benedict, but I admit I am not waiting for this visit the way I waited for John Paul," said Ewa Rudomina, 29, as she pushed her young daughter in a stroller across Warsaw's Pilsudski Square, where a large aluminum cross rises 82 feet on the spot Benedict will celebrate a Mass Friday.
"But maybe once he's here, and I can see him, I'll have the same feelings for him, too."