OSWIECIM (AFP)--- German-born Pope Benedict XVI, who visited Sunday the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camp, said the German people were not to blame for Nazi excesses against the Jews.
The pope described himself as "the son of a people over which a ring of criminals rose to power, by false promises of future greatness and the recovery of the nation’s honour."
"The place where we are standing is a place of memory, and at the same time the place of the Shoah," he said.
He asked God why he remained silent during the "unprecedented mass crimes" of the Holocaust.
The Pope met former inmates of the "abyss of terror" and recited a prayer of reconciliation in his native tongue on the last day of a visit to Poland.
"To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man, is almost impossible -- and it is particularly difficult for a Christian, for a pope from Germany," the Pope said in an address at the camp’s Birkenau annex.
"In a place like this, words fail," he said at the site where Nazis exterminated more than a million people, most of them Jews.
The 79-year-old pontiff said he had come to Auschwitz "as a son of the German people.
"I could not fail to come here. I had to come," he said.
"It is a duty before the truth and the just, due of all who suffered here, a duty before God, for me to come here as the successor of John Paul II and as a son of the German people."
As church bells rang in the southern town of Oswiecim -- the Polish name for Auschwitz -- a solemn Benedict, his hands clasped in prayer, walked in silence the 200 metres to the execution wall wedged between prisoner blocks 10 and 11, where the Nazis summarily shot thousands of prisoners.
His face grave, Benedict stood a few moments in prayer, removing his hat before bowing solemnly and placing a bowl containing a lighted candle before the grim wall.
The pope then greeted a line of 32 camp survivors waiting to meet him. Some grasped his hands warmly, some knelt to kiss his papal ring, many seemed eager to thank him for visiting the camp.
Benedict clasped the hands of the first survivor waiting in line, a woman, wearing the striped scarf that Polish political prisoners wore at the camp.
An elderly Polish man kissed the pope on both cheeks, a gypsy survivor of the camp pressed the pope’s hand to his lips.
Henryk Mandelbaum, 83, wearing the distinctive striped cap of the Sonderkommando -- Jewish prisoners who emptied the gas chambers where their fellow Jews perished -- kissed the papal ring.
Benedict afterwards descended into the bowels of the grim barracks to pray before a lighted candle in the cell where Catholic priest Maximilian Kolbe died in 1941. Kolbe had offered to take the place of a prisoner whom the Nazis had sentenced to death by starvation.
A rainbow broke through a leaden sky as Benedict, an aide holding an umbrella over his head, later paused before each of the 22 plaques at the Birkenau annex’s International Monument to the Victims of Fascism.
The plaques commemorate people from various countries exterminated at the camp.
Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich sang the Kaddish, a Jewish prayer of mourning, while musicians played a haunting Jewish lament.
"They would stir our hearts profoundly if we remembered the victims not merely in general, but rather saw the faces of individual persons who ended up here in this abyss of terror," said the pope.
A Jewish leader, US Rabbi Benjamin Blech, hailed Benedict’s visit as "historic for all Jewish people and for the world."
Asked if the pope should have apologised for crimes committed by Germany’s Nazis, Blech said: "His very presence here is an apology. It speaks volumes."
Neither was Blech disturbed, as some Jews had been, over Benedict’s decision to recite a prayer in German at Birkenau. "The pope’s presence speaks a universal language," he told Agence France Presse.