WARSAW, Poland — U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited the memorial site of Auschwitz on Friday along with the Polish president and Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of President Donald Trump, viewing a train car, crematoriums and the hair of victims that make it such a powerful testament to the evil that befell Europe in the last century.
It was the first visit for Pence, a conservative Christian, to the site where German forces murdered 1.1 million people, most of them Jews but also Poles, Roma and others, during the Nazis’ occupation of Eastern Europe during World War II.
Pence and his wife Karen were joined by Polish President Andrzej Duda and first lady Agata Kornhauser-Duda.
“It seems to me to be a scene of unspeakable tragedy, reminding us what tyranny is capable of,” Pence said hours later during an event Friday evening on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in Germany. “But it seems to me also to be a scene of freedom’s victory.”
“I traveled in our delegation with people who had family members who had been at Auschwitz — some had survived, some not. But to walk with them and think that two generations ago their forebears came there in box carts and that we would arrive in a motorcade in a free Poland and a Europe restored to freedom from tyranny is an extraordinary experience for us, and I’ll carry it with me the rest of our lives,” Pence said.
They began their visit by walking under the notorious gate with the German words “Arbeit Macht Frei,” the Nazi slogan meaning “Work sets you free.”
There, they paused and turned toward reporters, who took their photos.
Pence toured an exhibition hall that includes human hair and personal belongings of the victims before a wreath-laying at the Death Wall in a courtyard where prisoners were executed. Many of those shot there were Poles who were part of the underground resistance against the German occupation.
The two couples walked side-by-side to the wall for the wreath laying. The Pences held hands and the vice president adjusted a banner reading “From The People of the United States of America.”
Kushner was among a second group that then approached the wall and wreaths.
The second part of the visit took them to the nearby satellite camp of Birkenau, the site of the murder of Jews from across Europe. Pence knelt and bowed his head, placing his hand on a historic red boxcar on the train tracks used to bring Jews to their deaths there.
The couples also placed candles at a memorial to the Holocaust victims, with Pence wearing a Jewish skullcap. Poland’s chief rabbi recited a prayer to the dead and a Christian prayer was also recited.
The visit came a day after Pence accused Britain, France, Germany and the European Union as a whole of trying to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran and called on the EU to join the Trump administration in withdrawing from the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
He made those comments during a conference on the Mideast in Warsaw focused largely on Iran and which Tehran denounced as a hostile act.
Several times during his visit Pence compared the evil of the Nazis to that of Iran today.
He accused the regime in Tehran of “breathing out murderous threats with the same vile anti-Semitic hatred that animated the Nazis in Europe.”
He added that “to be there to see the end result of that and understand all that happened there, I think will better prepare us and strengthen the resolve of the free world to oppose that kind of vile hatred and to confront authoritarian threats of our time.”
Pence was on a four-day visit to Europe that also included meeting with Polish soldiers and American troops in Poland.
Geir Moulson in Munich contributed.