Lidia Maksymowicz, a Polish woman of Belarusian origin who survived the Holocaust, uncovered her arm to Pope Francis during the greetings after the May 26 General Audience. She revealed her tattoo as a former prisoner of Auschwitz.
Pope Francis gazed at her for a few moments, then bent down and kissed the number that after 76 years reminds her daily of the horror she experienced. (Read: Pope Francis Pays Visit to 90yo Survivor of the Holocaust)
As when he visited the camp in 2016, the Pope had no words, only a spontaneous, instinctive, affectionate gesture— “It has strengthened me and reconciled me with the world,” Lidia tells Vatican News.
“With the Holy Father, we understood each other with our eyes, we didn’t have to say anything to each other, there was no need for words,” she explains.
Three Gifts for the Pope
In those few moments at the end of the audience, Lidia was not able to share her story with the Pope. But she gave him three gifts that symbolize what are now the cornerstones of her life: memory, hope, and prayer.
Memory, represented by a handkerchief with a blue-and-white stripe with the letter “P” for Poland, on a red triangular background, which all Polish prisoners use in memorial ceremonies. (Read: These Instances Prove That Pope Francis Supports Equality)
Hope, symbolized by a picture, painted by her assistant Renata Rechlik, that portrays her as a child, hand in hand with her mother, as they watch from afar the tracks that lead to the entrance to the Birkenau camp and marked the beginning of the end for millions of Jews and other prisoners.
Finally, prayer: Into the hands of the Pontiff, Lidia placed a rosary with the image of St. John Paul II, blessed by her godson Fr. Dariusz. “It is what I use every day to pray.”
Now living in Krakow, Lidia is one of the last survivors of the Holocaust in Europe. She says she never stopped believing in God, despite the evil that was heaped on her when she was only three years old. (Read: Alberto Orillo, 102yo WW2 Veteran, Reveals His Secret to Long Life)
Identified in the camp as Polish prisoners with the “P” sewn on their striped uniforms, Lidia and her mother were separated while she was just three years old. Her mother was transferred to the workers’ barracks, while Lidia was sent to a “house full of children of different ages and nationalities.”
It was the barracks in which Josef Mengele worked, a man who even then was known as the “angel of death.” That house was the reservoir from which Mengele drew the victims of his experiments: pregnant women, twin babies, people with deformities.
Lidia had been sent to him as a “pretty and healthy child.” After almost eighty years, she no longer recalls what Mengele did with her little body, but she remembers well “the pain” and his gaze.
“He was an atrocious person, without limits or scruples. Day after day many people lost their lives at his hands. After the war, some of his books were found with references to tattooed numbers, including mine.”
Meeting Her Mother After 17 Years
Once liberated from the death camp, Lidia lived an incredible life. She was taken in by a Polish couple whom she considers her true family. (Read: Here’s What We Can Learn From the Heroes of Araw ng Kagitingan)
In 1962, Lidia was reunited with her birth mother through the Red Cross. While their affection had diminished after 17 years of separation and she can barely remember those three years they lived together, Lidia had great respect for her mother.
They hugged, they cried, they exchanged a few words… but Lidia chose to stay with her adoptive family, while always recognizing her as “my first mother.”
An Appeal To Young People
Currently, Lidia is in Italy as a guest of the Living Memory association of Castellamonte (Turin) to share her story with the young. She wanted to take advantage of her Italian visit to come to Rome and meet the Pope whom she loves deeply.
“After John Paul II, I love Pope Francis. I follow his ceremonies through the TV, I pray every day for him, I am faithful and affectionate toward him,” she says. (Read: 4 Female Saints Who Are Warriors in Spirit)
While she admits that she is already tired, clings to life with all her strength because she has a mission to fulfill: To keep the memory of the horrors of the Holocaust alive in the memory of new generations, who have grown up in an age when the specters of racism and nationalism seem to be flourishing again.
By way of Vatican News and Vatican Radio, Lidia made an appeal to today’s youth: “In your young hands is the future of the world. Listen to my words, go and visit Auschwitz and Birkenau, and see to it that this atrocity never returns. That history must never be repeated.”