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Visit of Pope John Paul II at Yad Vashem

Pope John Paul II - A Portrait

by Prof. Israel Gutman, Chief Historian of Yad Vashem

Karol Wojtyla — Pope John Paul II since 1978 — was born in 1920 in Wadowice, a small city in southwestern Poland between Krakow and Auschwitz. As a young man, he had a penchant for writing and authored poetry and plays. He completed his studies with a doctoral degree in philosophy and theology and served as a professor at the universities of Lublin and Krakow. He was ordained into the priesthood in 1946 and was named to the College of Cardinals in 1963. John Paul II is the first non-Italian pope in more than four centuries.

The choice of Karol Cardinal Wojtyla to head the Catholic Church marked a transition to the recognition of the candidate’s personal qualities. It was also a deliberate, demonstrative step, on the part of the Church, to install at its head a man from a country that, although under the fetters of the Communist Bloc, adhered to its Christian-Catholic faith.

Since then, Pope John Paul II has earned the respect of the faithful and has become sweepingly popular. Although wounded by a would-be assassin at the beginning of his papacy, he has been continually active. Apart from his routine duties in Rome, he has traveled extensively around the globe, delivering sermons and conducting masses for enormous congregations in numerous languages. He regularly expresses his views on basic political and social problems, orally and in writing, and often meets and exchanges words with ordinary people—groups and individuals—along with statespeople and luminaries.

John Paul II is considered a conservative cleric who is not eager to reform the existing dogmatic structure of the Church and rarely swerves from the conventional political attitudes of the Vatican State. The Holy See’s relations with Israel and the Palestinians, as reflected in the political dialogue with Israel in 1993 and with the Palestinians in 1996, and its recent agreement with Yasser Arafat concerning Jerusalem, should be viewed in this context.

In several respects, however, John Paul II has left his personal imprint by hastening processes and making innovations. Examples are his trailblazing initiatives in understanding and outreach between various Christian churches and the monotheistic faiths and, especially, his calls for dialogue with Jews.

John Paul II considers religion-based ethics and humanism a solution to the conflicts and disasters embodied in extreme ideologies, revolutions, totalitarian regimes, and wars that have beset Europe and the world in the twentieth century. In his opinion, the dangers that menace humankind may be averted by an intensification of faith and ecumenical outreach.

In his public appearances, in visits to Poland and in encounters with Jewish groups, he often refers to the Holocaust (he often uses the Hebrew term, Shoah) and antisemitism. In his 1998 letter, marking the publication of the document, “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” produced by the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, he states, “On numerous occasions during my Pontificate, I have recalled with a sense of deep sorrow the sufferings of the Jewish people during the Second World War. The crime which has become known as the Shoah remains an indelible stain on the history of the century that is coming to a close. Remembrance of the Holocaust, is an essential component in fashioning the future.

The Church’s attitude toward Judaism and Jews had already been improved considerably by Pope John XXIII (Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli), whose papacy began in 1958 and ended in 1963, and in the 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate, which inaugurated what has been termed an ongoing dialogue with Judaism and Jews. Pope John Paul II’s remarks are sometimes couched in a strongly personal tone that indicates the impact of his experiences in, and recollections of, World War II on his attitude toward the Holocaust

On several occasions, John Paul II has addressed himself to the destruction of the Jews during his visits to Poland, which he regards as pilgrimages. All Poles unanimously admire the Pope, and his remarks on the Jews have certainly been distasteful to some Poles, including members of the clergy, who even today have not cleansed themselves of antisemitism.

In April 1986, John Paul II was the first pope to visit the Great Synagogue in Rome, where he said, inter alia, “On June 7, 1979, as I visited the death camp at Auschwitz, during mass for the multitudinous victims of various peoples, I dwelled in particular on a plaque bearing an inscription in Hebrew. I expressed my feelings at that moment in the following way: ‘This inscription evokes the memory of the people whose offspring were doomed to utter annihilation. This people has its origins in Abraham, whom Paul of Tarsus termed the “father of our faith.” This people, which received from God the commandment “Thou shalt not murder,” itself experienced a singular ordeal in killing. No one may pass this plaque indifferently.

John Paul II defined antisemitism as a sin and termed “various forms of antisemitism and discrimination against Jews contrary to the spirit of Christianity.” In 1984, he stated, “To the Jewish people who live in the State of Israel and sustain on its soil the great value embodied in its history and faith, we wish the longed-for peace and deserved tranquillity, the indisputable entitlements of any people and a condition for the life and advancement of any society.”

During his visit to Poland in 1987, the Pope stated in an encounter with Jews: “... I think the Jewish people today, perhaps more than ever, is at the focal point of interest of the world’s peoples. You have indeed become a resounding warning to all of humankind, all peoples, all regimes, and every individual.” In 1983, marking the fortieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, he portrayed the Uprising as “a cry of despair on behalf of the right to life, liberty, and the salvation of human dignity.”

Revealing his personal recollections in one of his public appearances, he said:

"I remember, first of all, the elementary school in Wadowice, where at least one-fourth of my classmates were Jewish boys. It is appropriate here to mention my friendship with one of them, Jerzy Kluger. It has lasted from my student days to the present time. My eyes still behold, like a living picture, the Jews walking on the Sabbath to the synagogue near our high school. The two religious blocs, Catholic and Jewish, were linked, so I assume, by the knowledge that they worship the same God. Despite the difference in language, the prayers in church and synagogue were based on the same texts. Then came the Second World War, with the concentration camps and the planned extermination. Its primary victims were the sons and daughters of the Jewish people, solely because they were Jews. Everyone who lived in Poland at that time must have come into contact with it, at least indirectly. This was also my personal experience, which I carry inside to this day. Auschwitz, evidently the most salient symbol of the Shoah of the Jewish people, illustrates the level to which a system resting on foundations of racial hatred and aspiration to governmental supremacy of one people can descend. The warning of Auschwitz continues to resound. Auschwitz, meaning antisemitism, a massive sin against humankind, signifies that any manifestation of racial hatred that inescapably leads to the trampling of humankind is a great sin against humankind."

Even if the Pope’s idyllic description of Polish-Jewish relations and interfaith relations in Poland hardly reflects the reality in the interwar period, the fact that he so believes, or wishes to believe, is valuable. Jerzy Turowicz, a Polish thinker and pundit who was a close associate of the Pope’s, wrote, “John Paul II is totally aware that the khurbn, the Holocaust, or the Shoah ... the only attempt of its kind to physically exterminate an entire people, represents not only a crisis in Jewish history but also a singular challenge to Christians ....”

Remarks by a Polish Pope in these matters [Christian-Jewish relations] must have a vast impact on the outlooks and attitudes of his own people. The insistent urgings in the writings of John Paul II allow us to understand the distinction of his views on Christian-Jewish relations relative to views that are widely held even today. The Pope believes that the situation in this respect is improving. The reason for this, beyond doubt, is his personal example, activity, and teachings.