Saint John Paul II: Defender of the Jews

Today, the eighteenth of May, would have been Saint John Paul II’s ninety-seventh birthday, an appropriate day to remember his powerful words on interreligious dialogue, especially his words on Jews and Judaism. This is especially critical now because of the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, including, surprisingly, in Poland, the land of his birth. As a Holocaust survivor born in Poland, I am sad that so many Polish people, who are truly enamored with this Polish pope and who see him as a hero, have ignored his love of Jews and the Jewish tradition and have forgotten that he always spoke of Jews as his brothers and sisters.

The Polish people certainly remember the pope’s efforts to end communism, but too many seem to have forgotten his strong friendship with the Jewish people. Many of us believed that anti-Semitism would become impossible in Poland after the election of John Paul II. His message of peace must be made known to the entire world. We must stop demonizing the other and, like the pope, try to see the beauty in other religious traditions. More resources must be devoted to making his views of “the stranger,” the member of a different religious tradition, especially the Jewish tradition, better known.

What follows is a brief recounting of John Paul’s close relationship with Jews and Judaism from his birth to his death. My hope is that knowledge of this will move people’s minds and hearts to a positive view closer to that of the pope.

Karol Wojtyla was born May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, Poland, in a house owned by a Jewish family. The Jews of this small town constituted about 20 percent of the population, making John Paul II the first pope since Peter to have grown up among Jews. He is the first pope in history who spoke Yiddish. Jews of Wadowice who knew him tell us that even as a young man he protected Jews from anti-Semites. During World War II, Wojtyla was a member of an underground theater group that worked against the Nazis. It is still surprising to learn that the Holy Father had his first official audience with one of his oldest friends, Jerzy Kluger, a Jew whom he grew up with in Wadowice. The next day the newspapers in Rome reported, “Pope Grants First Audience to Hebrew Friend.”

Soon after Karol Wojtyla became pope, it became clear that his papacy was something of a divine miracle as far as Jews were concerned. What other pope in history ever spoke of the Jews “as a blessing to the world?” He said:

“As Christians and Jews following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing to the world. This is a common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us Christians and Jews to be first a blessing to each other.”

Over the long papacy of John Paul II, despite some serious disagreements with the Vatican, Jews witnessed the pope’s deep veneration and special love for the Jewish people. This love had a theological as well as a personal basis. The Jews were precious to him because, in his words, they continue to show the world “the beauty and profound truth of belief in the one God and Lord.”

John Paul consistently spoke of the Jews as “the people of God of the Old Testament” and “our elder brothers in the faith.” He often spoke of the “spiritual link” between the Church and the Jews. He called this link a sacred one, because it comes from the “mysterious will of God.”

One of the key ways in which John Paul II advanced Jewish-Catholic understanding was that, more than any other pope, he renounced the teaching of contempt for Jews. For him, Jews are not rejected by God. He said “God does not reject his people.” He spoke of anti-Semitism as “a sin against God and humanity.” For the pope, there was only one race: the human race. He urged Catholics to join in Biblical study with Jewish people in order to “seek to understand Jews and Judaism as they define themselves.”

Another factor in John Paul’s effectiveness in improving relations with Judaism was his frequent acknowledgement that the Jews were the primary victims of the Holocaust. In 1979, John Paul II visited Auschwitz. He spoke of Auschwitz as “one of the darkest and most tragic moments in history” and also as “the greatest tragedy of our century, the greatest trauma.”

The event that stands out for me before the pope’s historic visit to the Holy Land was his extraordinary visit to the Synagogue of Rome on April 13, 1986. On that day, John Paul II went inside the synagogue and blessed the Jews. Later he singled out his visit to the Synagogue of Rome as the major event of the year 1986. He believed that this event would be remembered “for centuries and millennia in the history of this city and of this church.” He stated: “I thank divine providence because the task was given to me.”

For Jews throughout the world perhaps the most moving moment of the visit to the Holy Land occurred on Thursday, March 23, 2000, when the pope attended a special ceremony at the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and stated:

I have come to Yad Vashem to pay homage to the millions of Jewish people who, stripped of everything, especially of their human dignity, were murdered in the Holocaust. . . . We wish to remember. But we wish to remember for a purpose, namely to ensure that never again will evil prevail, as it did for the millions of innocent victims of Nazism.

For many Jews around the world the milestone of the pope’s pilgrimage took place on Sunday, March 26, his last day in the Holy Land, when he went to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest place on earth for Jews, and inserted the following prayer into the cracks of the Wall:

God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who, in the course of history, have caused these children of yours to suffer. In asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant.

Jerusalem, 26.3.2000

Joannes Paulus II

John Paul II loved Poland; he was very much in love with the Polish people. But his greatness lies in his ability to extend this love to all Catholics and to all humanity. Indeed, many Catholics and members of other traditions believe that he was a holy person, a saint of our time. In this difficult time for the United States, we must remember Saint John Paul II’s advice, “Do not be afraid.” We must all do what we can to make his message of love and peace ring in the ears of the Polish people and all people.

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