Pope Francis embraced a group of survivors of Auschwitz and honoured the more than one million victims during a sombre visit to the notorious site.

The Argentine pontiff today followed in the footsteps of his two immediate predecessors to make the pilgrimage to the site, where he also met 25 Christians who risked their lives to save Jews during the Shoah and prayed alongside Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich.

After walking slowly beneath the gate bearing the words “Arbeit Macht Frei”, he met 12 survivors of the death camp. One by one, he stopped, shook their hands and bent over to kiss the elderly survivors on both cheeks. One woman kissed his hand and he exchanged a few words with them. The meeting took place in front of the death wall where thousand were shot and where the pope placed a large white candle in remembrance.

He was then taken in a small car past barracks and brought to a spot in front of them, where he sat on chair, his head bent in contemplation and prayer. He wrote in the visitors’ book: “Lord, have pity on your people. Lord, forgive so much cruelty.”

Invited by the Vatican to join the delegation was Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, who said the way the pope embraced the survivors was unprecedented for a papal visit.

“What was also unique was that the only public words heard here were psalm 130 and kaddish emphasising the Jewish significance of the site,” he told the Jewish News. “The visit was an important reminder for the world of the depths of inhumanity that are possible and of how Jewish history uniquely testifies to this.” Stressing the importance in Jewish tradition of an event happening three times, he said Auschwitz should now be a accepted “station on any papal itinerary”.

Karen Pollock, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: “This visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau by Pope Francis is a symbolic reminder of our shared effort to ensure that this period of our history is never forgotten.”

Dr Ed Kessler, Founder of the Woolf institute in Cambridge, said: “Pope Francis listened carefully to God’s silence at Auschwitz.  His meetings with survivors demonstrated his longing to recognize one other as brothers and that while words of our prayers are different, our tears and our silence are the same.

Pope Francis also prayed in the dark underground prison cell of a Catholic saint, Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish friar who sacrificed his own life during the war to save the life of another man. A few shafts of light from a tiny window were the only light cast on the white figure of Francis, who knelt for many minutes as he prayed before he crossed himself and rose to his feet.

World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder described the Catholic Church leader as “one of the closest allies Jews have today in the fiht against anti-Semitism and bigotry”, while European Jewish Congress chief Moshe Kantor said it is vital at a time of rising anti-Semitism that others follow in the pope’s footsteps.

“The slaughter of a Catholic priest this week is a reminder that people of faith must stand together against extremists who seek to kill on the basis of another’s faith, nationality or background.”

As an Argentine he is the first pope to visit who did not live through the brutality of World War Two on Europe’s soil. Both of his predecessors had a personal historical connection to the site, with the first, John Paul II, coming from Poland and himself a witness to the suffering inflicted on his nation during the German occupation.

His visit in 1979 made history and was part of the Vatican’s historical efforts at reconciliation with Jews. Pope Benedict XVI, who visited in 2006, was a German who served in the Hitler Youth for a time as a teenager.

Francis had been scheduled to fly from Krakow to Oswiecim, the small town where the former death camp is located, but due to bad weather travelled the 40 miles by car instead.

It is his third day of a five-day visit to Poland that includes meetings with young pilgrims taking part in World Youth Day, a global youth celebration.

Friday is devoted to the theme of suffering and later in the day Francis will visit a children’s hospital in Krakow.

During his visit, the Pope also became the latest member of Krakow’s Jewish Community Centre (JCC). He was presented with a membership card and t-shirt,

It’s Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein, who presented the Pontiff with the card, said: “I told him about the rebirth of Jewish life in Krakow and how close our relations are with the church. And I thanked him for giving voice to the oppressed,” according to JTA.