- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

12:40 p.m.

WARSAW — Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Poland to an enthusiastic welcome today as he began a four-day visit intended to honor predecessor John Paul II and further German-Polish healing from the wounds of World War II.

Benedict beamed broadly and waved as he descended from the plane at Warsaw’s international airport, and he managed to keep his skullcap from flying off in a brisk breeze — unlike his arrival on his first foreign trip to Germany last year.

The crowd cheered his attempts at speaking Polish, and a choir sang “The Barge,” John Paul’s favorite song — just one sign of how the late pope remains a strong presence in Poland more than a year after his death.

The visit will touch on some of the most painful memories of Europe’s past, including a visit by the pope to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where the Nazis killed 1.5 million people, mostly Jews. The pope was enrolled unwillingly in the Hitler Youth and was later a German army draftee. He deserted rather than fight in the German army.

Asked by journalists on the plane how he felt about visiting Auschwitz as a German, Benedict said, “I am above all a Catholic. I must say that this is the most important point.”

The pope rode into town and was greeted with prolonged, loud applause at the soaring Cathedral of John the Baptist for a meeting with Polish clergy. The sometimes-shy Benedict looked wide-eyed and seemed touched and a bit startled by the reception.

However, some of the frenzied anticipation that characterized native son John Paul’s visits, when thousands jammed the streets before dawn, was lacking, with fewer people turning out early to hold yellow and white Vatican flags and watch as Benedict passed by in his popemobile.

Benedict tried some Polish with his formal hello to the honor guard: “Greetings, soldiers,” but stumbled a bit over the words. He drew a roar of applause, however, as began his welcoming speech in Polish, later switching to Italian.

“I have very much wanted to make this visit to the native land and people of my beloved predecessor, the servant of God, John Paul II,” Benedict said in remarks prepared for his arrival. “I have come to follow in the footsteps of his life.”

Benedict spoke in both languages, presumably out of regard for the wartime generation in Poland, which suffered enormously at the hands of the Nazi invaders.

Organizers dropped initial plans for Benedict to ride through the Auschwitz gate under the infamous words “Arbeit Macht Frei” — “Work Sets You Free” — when it was recalled that Nazi soldiers drove through the gate while inmates walked. He will now arrive on foot.

“I expect like his predecessor he will remind Christians of the unique debt that Christianity owes to its Jewish parent,” said George Weigel, an American biographer of John Paul.

The pontiff’s schedule included a Mass tomorrow in central Warsaw where John Paul inspired the Solidarity movement with a landmark appearance in 1979 during communist rule. Then he heads for the late pope’s hometown of Wadowice, and for Krakow, where John Paul served as archbishop.

Poles like Benedict’s emphasis on continuing John Paul’s legacy and don’t seem to mind that he is German despite the memory of the war. Catholic-Jewish relations were a favorite cause of John Paul, who also visited Auschwitz on his 1979 trip to Poland.

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