We spent two years researching this documentary. Over and over, we heard
the following refrain: "To understand this Pope, you must go back to his
Polish roots." Ultimately, everything we learned proved the deep truth of
these words. All of the major themes of John Paul II's papacy can be traced
to the shaping events of his life--a life whose roots are sunk in Polish
soil. His Christian vision, his vocation, his very emotions draw their depth
and intensity from the country he left to become Holy Father of the Catholic
Church in Rome.
As the Vicar of Jesus Christ and successor of St. Peter, he has
revolutionized the office of the modern pope. He has taken his mission out of
the Vatican and around the globe, pushing back the boundaries of the old
Christian Europe--proselytizing, reforming, opening new churches wherever
he's gone in Latin America, the United States, the East and Africa. He wooed
and won the media with his personal gifts and variety. He has been the skiing
pope, the poet pope, the best-selling CD pope, the designer robes pope, the
But he has never descended into trivial celebrity. He is the pope who
brought down Communism; the pope who worked ceaselessly towards Christian
reconciliation with the Jews; the pope who raised his voice against the
contemporary evil in our "culture of death." He has never consulted
pollsters, but marched to a stern, unyielding drummer. So John Paul II has
also been the infuriating pope, the retrograde pope, the silencing pope, the
pope who has ignored the revolutionary changes in the status of women. His
uncompromising limitations--as well as his extraordinary accomplishments--
all reflect the impress of a vanished world: the Poland where Karol Wojtyla
came of age.
In the 16th century, Poland was the largest country in Europe. Slowly,
painfully, inexorably, they lost control of their superior position. For the
last two centuries, again and again, Poland has been brutally partitioned and
devoured by its neighbors. Germans, Austrians and Russians divided and
redivided the low, flat, defenseless country, drenching its borders in blood
and torturing the national psyche.
The reasons for losing their powerful place in Europe are less important
than the result. Poles remain completely preoccupied with the story of why
they fell and what has happened to them since. This retrospective legacy is shared
across all political and class divisions. Communists and aristocrats look back
with the same passion as intellectuals, peasants and artists.
The last Communist prime minister of Poland, Mieczyslaw Rakowski,
thoughtfully tugged on a Cuban cigar as he meditated on his country's history
with us. He felt he and the Pope shared a common view which he described this
way: "You have to remember that Poland during the medieval years was a power to
be reckoned with. The area of Poland was immense. It reached from the Baltic to
the Black Sea. In the 18th century, Poland ceased to exist on the European map.
The next five generations of Poles lived in slavery through partitioning. The
nation developed this inferiority complex towards other nations. History became
an obsession for the Poles, and whether you joined the Communist Party, as I
did, or the Church like John Paul II, you were reacting to the national
Poland's pain lies behind every tree, every mound. The proud country
remembers every wound. Adam Zamoyski is an historian and a member of the
ancient Polish nobility. He has a confidence bred of centuries, an aristocratic
pride that feels the wound in all its freshness. "As a Pole you were born into
a bankrupt business, you weren't like other people. Every Pole has to confront-
why have we made such a mess? Three hundred years ago we were a great power and
a normal country. Then we'd become a pathetic country whose history no one
knew. Every Pole has a question mark somewhere. For the Pope, for all of us
growing up after the war, anybody going through the war, even people born in
Poland after the war were born into its arguments. We are a people stung by
Not just stung by history, shaped by it. As General Jaruzelski, formerly
head of the Polish Communist Party, confided to us, "The Pope and I belong to
the same generation. We have been intellectually and emotionally shaped in the
pre-war period. We have absorbed a strong and vivid sense of Poland's memories,
especially Poland's partition and bondage. We inhaled this early history like
fresh air, like oxygen, and we lived by it. Our heroes were those who fought
against it, the heroic martyrological tradition. In my very first conversation
during martial law, he stressed that he always remembered the history of
Poland through so many tragedies, through partitions. He reaches down into
history. It is intimate with him."
The Polish nation has often only existed in the Polish mind. Having no
geography, the Poles feel history must take its place. They give the oaks of
their forests the names of lost kings. They bury and rebury their beloved
Queen Jadwega died in 1399. Her most recent funeral was held in solemn pomp in
1973. Repetition can bring ecstatic release, but rarely closure.
As the English journalist, Neal Ascherson (who spent years covering
Poland) said to us, "It has seemed, for generation after generation, that
Polish history has a sort of cyclical form. It moves in cycles, which horribly repeat
themselves... insurrection, repression, intervals of freedom, occupation by
foreign powers, and deep moral confusion."
Karol Jozef Wojtyla--whose rise to the papacy signaled new hope for his
nation--was born on a day of great modern reckoning for the Poles: May 18,
1920, a day called the Polish Miracle. On that day, Marshal Jozef Pilsudski
struck a deciding blow in the war against the Soviet Union and seized Kiev. It
was Poland's first major military victory in over two centuries. It set in motion
events which briefly restored Poland's independence. Mindful of the nation's turning
point, Karol's father gave his new son Pilsudski's middle name. Some people
said he also called Karol "Josef" after Mary's self-sacrificing husband. The
confluence of history and religion were significant, as was the moment of
Karol's birth. He belonged to a generation who breathed oppression and defeat
in the air around them. But unlike their parents, they also knew what freedom
Karol's father and mother were from the Galician--or Austro-Hungarian
--section of Poland. His father's family were peasant stock, raised to
prosperity in Wojtyla's grandfather's generation. Karol's father was born on
July 18, 1879. He earned his livelihood as a tailor until he was drafted into
the Austrian army in 1900. The military became his lifetime career. Though he
never rose very far, "the Lieutenant" (as he was always called) was awarded the
Austrian Iron Cross of Merit for bravery during World War I. Photographs show
the seriousness, discipline and moral character for which Karol Senior was also
praised in his Army file. In 1906, he married Emilia Kaczorowska, the daughter
of a Krakow upholsterer. She bore him three children and became her family's
Emilia was a sensitive young woman of delicate health. Her first child, a
boy named Edmund, was born the first year of her marriage--in 1906. In one of
the few family photographs of Karol Senior with Emilia and Edmund, she is
feminine and soft. Her dark eyes are meditative, subtle, slightly wary. She
was already intimate with suffering and death. As she was growing up, she
watched four of her brothers and sisters grow sick, languish and die. She lost
her mother during adolescence. Fortunately, Edmund was healthy, able, even
brilliant. Soon enough he was doing so well at school that he planned to become
a doctor. But Emilia's next child, a daughter, Olga, died in infancy around
1914. Thereafter her own health began to fail.
Karol Wojtyla was born in Wadowice, in an apartment whose windows
looked out on the Church of our Lady where he would worship and serve as an
altar boy. Emilia adored him. She told the neighbors that he would be a great
man, a priest. She taught him to cross himself. She read Scripture with him.
But she was often in bed, suffering from inflammation of both heart and kidney.
She was increasingly nervous, melancholy, silent. She died on April 13, 1929
when Karol was eight. The pope's adoration of his young mother is well-known. He has
said she was "the soul of home." When she died, his father took him to
Kalwaria, a Marian shrine close to Wadowice. Karol's lifelong devotion to the
Virgin began on that trip after he lost his mother.
But there's also evidence to suggest that the boy felt deprived by his
mother's depressions. According to Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi in His
Holiness, after he became a priest, Wojtyla confided that his "mother was a
sick woman. She was hard-working, but she didn't have much time to devote to
me." When the boy turned to Mary, he may have been turning away from
disappointment as well as loss.
From the time of Emilia's death, Karol and the Lieutenant lived alone.
They were extremely close. At some point, they even started sleeping in the
same room. The Lieutenant was a force for rectitude and piety, one of several key
influences in Wojtyla's religious life. As pope, John Paul II remembered that,
"Day after day I was able to observe the austere way in which he lived. By
profession he was a soldier and, after my mother's death, his life became one
of constant prayer. Sometimes I would wake up during the night and find my
father on his knees, just as I would always see him kneeling in the parish
church. We never spoke about a vocation to the priesthood, but his example was
in a way my first seminary, a kind of domestic seminary."
Eugeniusz Mroz, one of the pope's Wadowice classmates, remembers that
"after the death of his wife, Karol's father devoted himself solely to his
son's upbringing...His father was sewing, washing, and cooking, being Karol's
mother, father, friend and colleague." The boy returned his father's devotion.
After his morning at school, Wojtyla shared the midday meal with his father. In
the afternoons, he played sports, but always went home punctually in early
evening for homework, dinner and a late walk with his sole surviving parent.
Mroz told us a story (one we never heard or read anywhere else) which
gives a rare glimpse into the intensity of the boy's attachment to his father.
While the three were hiking in the mountains, the Lieutenant walked out ahead
of the boys. Suddenly a fog came up, completely enshrouding Karol Senior. His
son immediately began to run along the path, calling out for his father. There
was no answer. He had disappeared! Karol went down on his knees and began
praying in a loud, clear voice, begging God to bring his father back safely.
Mroz knelt and prayed with Karol. When the fog lifted, they still could not
find Karol Senior and feared he might have lost his way and fallen to his death. They
rushed home where they were delightfully surprised to find Wojtyla's father
waiting for them with a cup of hot tea.
Years later, Father Figlewicz recalled seeing "the shadow of early
orphanage" in his altar boy. But the priest also described Wojtyla as
"lively, very talented, very quick and very good. He had an optimistic nature,"
and he threw himself into life with all of his incredible stamina. Along with
school games like soccer, Karol first learned to ski as a boy. He discovered
the mountains literally step by step, as he and his friends followed another
local priest, Father Edward Zacher, up the nearby slopes on their boards in the
days before ski lifts. In winter, there was skating on the Skawa, the river
that snakes through Wadowice; in summer, the boys swam there. Though their life
was simple, Wojtyla and his father had friends at church and company at home.
One of Wojtyla's closest friends, Jerzy Kluger, often dropped by and remembers
Karol Senior's passion for Polish history--his love of regaling the boys with
tales of lost battles, the heroism of St. Stanislaw and the rich history
embedded in Wawel Castle.
Father and son kept in close touch with Edmund and traveled to Krakow in
1930 to see him graduate from the School of Medicine at the Jagellonian
University. After the ceremony, Karol Senior took his boys to Czestochowa--the
heart of Polish Christianity--where Karol prayed to the Black Madonna, Queen
of Poland, for the first time. The boy was deeply moved and returned on a
school trip in the summer of 1932. That winter, the second great tragedy of
his childhood struck. Edmund--the adored older brother who shared his passion
for theatre and soccer--died of scarlet fever. As pope, John Paul II told an
audience that the impact of his brother's death was "perhaps even deeper than
my mother's." His classmates remember it that way too, that Karol cried at
Edmund's funeral, but not at his mother's. Szczepan Mogelniecki said, "The
brother's death was more his tragedy." And it bound Karol ever more deeply to
the sense that his fate was one with Poland's.
Like the nation, Wojtyla must suffer. He felt it when he prayed to Mary,
suffering Mother of Christ, in her little chapel in the Church of our Lady.
He drank in the suffering Poland in his literature and history classes. He
loved the 19th century poets Slowacki and Mickiewicz in whom the beauty and
pain of Poland was so alive. They often dealt with patriotic themes--national
uprisings, the thirst for freedom and Polish messianism. As Neal Ascherson
said in his interview, "Messianism has a very particular meaning in
Poland. It says Poland is the incarnation, it's the collective incarnation of
Jesus Christ. It is a nation which has to be crucified, in order to bring about the salvation of all
nations." Karol Wojtyla was schooled in this tradition, and he responded to it
The young Karol memorized Slowacki's "The Slavic Pope," a prophetic
poem about a pope from the East who "will not flee the sword, /Like that
Italian./Like God, He will bravely face the sword..." In a world that had never
had a Polish pope, Karol was raised with a vision of one. From early on, he
was fascinated by the martyred St. Stanislaw, a bishop murdered by a tyrant king in
1079. As Cardinal of Krakow, Wojtyla often invoked St. Stanislaw in his
homilies and sermons. The Communists did not appreciate the reference. They
knew he stood for the power of Polish resurrection: after his murder the
enraged populace chased the king out of Krakow. As if to underline how Poles
rose from the dead, Cardinal Wojtyla had St. Stanislaw's skull dug up and
examined by forensic experts. They confirmed that he'd been executed. "In this
fashion," Tad Szulc writes in his biography, Pope John Paul II, modern
science vindicated a patriotic-religious legend." After all, Karol Wojtyla
"regarded himself as the martyred saint's successor as Bishop of Krakow--and he
owed him historical truth."
Karol first turned to theatre as the outlet for his gifts. He lacked the
self-aggrandizing qualities often associated with actors. He was a sober,
studious boy. His classmates point out how often he stands to the side in
photos of school excursions or class pictures. It was very characteristic that "Karol
stood aside...Almost every picture we have with Karol, in almost every picture,
he's somewhere aside, somewhere remote, a bit aside from all of us." He always
preferred to be an observer.
Nonetheless his patriotic passions were perfectly suited to a particular
kind of Polish theatre. In the early 1930's, he met Mieczyslaw Kotlarcyzk who
would teach him about "the Living Word," a style of performing which emphasized
language, monologues and simplicity of sets. The Living Word had its roots in
life under partition--when people sang Polish songs and recited Polish poetry
after dinner in country manor houses. It was a way of preserving their culture.
Kotlarcyzk had turned this subversive, informal entertainment into a theory of
Kotlarcyzk ran the Amateur University Theatre in Wadowice. Wojtyla began
acting in plays at school and branched out into Kotlarcyzk's productions.
The pope's public persona goes back to the declamatory style of these plays which
also emphasized, as John Paul II so often does still, symbolic gestures and
metaphor. His relationship to Kotlarcyzk launched Wojtyla as an actor and a
playwright. Their intense discussions about Polish language and culture became
the basis of an important, revealing correspondence once Karol graduated from
high school and moved to Krakow with his father in 1938. The letters that went
back and forth between Wojtyla and his mentor meant, first of all, that the
young university student knew just what was happening in Wadowice once the
Nazis invaded. Karol was kept informed of who among his friends and neighbors
had been sent to Auschwitz, who among the Jews had been herded into the
ghetto--and who among both groups had been summarily executed.
Karol painted pictures of wartime Krakow for Kotlarcyzk who hoped to
move there. "Now life is waiting in line for bread, scavenging for sugar,
and dreaming of coal and books." Karol also expressed despair over the collapse
of Poland and mourned the loss of "ideas that should have surrounded in dignity
the nation of Mickiewicz, Slowacki, Norwid and Wyspianski." Wojtyla saw the
University shut under the Nazis. He saw his professors rounded up and shot
or deported. He saw Jews hunted like animals.
The Nazis also waged systematic Kulturkampf by closing libraries and
shutting cultural institutions to the Poles. Only Germans could attend plays
and concerts or go to museums. A Pole could be shot for going to the theatre
and even for speaking Polish in the wrong place. When Kotlarczyk finally came to
Krakow in the summer of 1941, Wojtyla and his friends helped him start the
underground Rhapsodic Theatre. By focusing on Polish words and texts, they were
risking their lives for their country. They were also providing manna for
people starved for the sound of their own language. In a letter to Kotlarcyzk,
Wojtyla showed the missionary passion behind his cultural resistance. He wrote
his teacher that he wanted to build "a theatre that will be a church where the
national spirit will burn."
Ultimately, the two institutions would be reversed for Karol Wojtyla. The
Church would be the theatre for his Polish preoccupations. But first his
personal suffering would deepen unbearably and his country would have to be
crucified by another occupying power. Karol's father died February 18, 1941.
Though he would soon regain his outward calm, intimates in Krakow saw how
deeply this loss cut. They were worried about Wojtyla's state of mind. He was
distraught. After he found his father, Wojtyla stayed up all night praying by
the bedside with Juliusz Kydrynski, his closest friend from the theatre. He
started going to the grave every day and was so upset Father Malinski, a
fellow seminarian, "feared that something terrible might happen." As pope, John
Paul II told the writer Andre Frossard, "At twenty I had already lost all the
people I loved, and even those I might have loved, like my older sister who,
they said, died, six years before I was born."
Karol's loneliness was complete. Once more suffering fatefully bound him
to his beloved country's anguished destiny. The man who would become the
first Polish pope was first made in his landscape's likeness. His terrible losses
mounted, each a mortal blow to Wojtyla's identity, each leaving a mournful
deposit, each associated with a consoling Polish myth: Mary's enduring
compassion, the promise of national redemption, the surviving power of the
Polish language. By the time Wojtyla came of age, he bore his country's rich
themes inside him.
In his interview for our documentary, Professor Eamon Duffy of
Cambridge University, author of Saints and Sinners, described the powerful ways
suffering connected Poland to John Paul's papacy. "Suffering is crucial for
understanding John Paul, at a personal level, and at a racial, ethnic,
historical and theological level. His personal life is one of enormous personal deprivation:
the loss of his mother when he was very young; the loss of his brother who was
perhaps the person he was closest to in the world; then when he was a very
young man, and before he'd really shaped his own life choices, the loss of his
father, whose piety had been crucial in shaping his own religion...But the
Polish people for 200 years have been a victim-people, partitioned between
Germany and Russia, religiously oppressed, enslaved, abandoned by the world at
the beginning of the Second World War. And that experience of desolation for
him is part and parcel of the religious desolation of the East, a church which
is the Church of Silence, which was cut off from the West...He feels he has
given the churches of the East a special vision, a special access to the Gospel
of the Crucified...Personal suffering for him chimed in perfectly and became an
image of this greater vocation to the suffering of the churches of the
We often encountered evasiveness surrounding the Pope's childhood
experience with the Jews in Wadowice. Certain facts were put forward as proof
that John Paul II had only had model relations with Jews: he and his father
rented their apartment from a Jewish landlord. Karol Wojtyla went to school with Jews.
Most importantly, as a boy, his closest friend was Jerzy Kluger, a Jewish boy
from a wealthy local family. The Pope's lifelong friendship with Jerzy Kluger
is always asserted as indisputable evidence that John Paul II never had to
overcome any limitations in his relation to the Jews. Understandably, Poles
would want to minimize the complexity, even the darkness of their relationships to Jews.
But many--not all, but many--Jews would also make an exception of Wadowice when
they spoke to us. And the world at large has accepted the version of the Pope's
idyllic hometown where Poles and Jews got along just fine. There seems to be
reluctance on everyone's part to suggest the possibility of the Pope having
been contaminated by the faintest breath anti-Semitism.
In truth, the Wadowice of his childhood was a model of Polish
anti-Semitism as well as offering him examples of cooperation. Later, as a
student in Krakow, during the Nazi Occupation, Karol Wojtyla would have been
witness to the murder of Jews in the street. He would have known about the
outright treachery of those who turned Jews in for food. He knew about the
silence of the Church during the Holocaust and after--the silence that
persisted even in 1968 when renewed hostilities forced 38,000 Jews to flee
As we came to our project, Darcy O'Brien published The Hidden Pope.
Though it features the story of John Paul II's friendship with Jerzy Kluger,
it also contains a remarkable amount of new research on anti-Semitism in their
childhood Wadowice, in Catholic Christianity and in the Vatican. But Darcy
O'Brien died suddenly in the spring of 1998, just as he was to start his
publicity tour. We could not interview him for the film. If Jerzy Kluger had
been more willing, his interview might have helped evoke the rich detail and
complexity of O'Brien's portrait of the Catholic-Jewish world in 1920's
Wadowice. But Mr. Kluger had told his stories one too many times. He was
impatient, even unwilling, to set familiar scenes with new words. The balance
had shifted for him. It had become his story, perhaps naturally enough, but
from our point view, he couldn't serve as a conduit for O'Brien's original
From his first years, Karol Wojtyla was intimate with the dark side of
Poland's anti-Semitism. As Pope, he has worked hard to recognize and
eradicate such prejudice. In the documentary, our question is not what Wojtyla did, but
why it took him so long to act and whether he had gone far enough. Here we want
to explore new biographical materials we could not include in the film and
speculate on the psychological rather than the moral springs of the Pope's
In 1920, there were 8,000 Catholics and 2,000 Jews in Wadowice. The town
was built of narrow streets around the central square of administrative
buildings. Catholics and Jews lived in close proximity. They were the other and
the same: both chosen people with a strict religious practice at the center of
their lives. The Wadowice Synagogue was near Karol's high school, and he
watched with fascination as the Jews walked by during his classes. Years later,
as Pope, he wrote,"I have in front of my eyes the numerous worshippers who during
their Holidays passed on their way to pray." At the same time, Stanislaw Jura,
one of Wojtyla's classmates, told us, "80-90% of the Jewish population was
poor...Our connections with Jews was so rare. It wasn't very amicable. There
was a bit of anti-Semitism...A lot of the Jews had funny curls, big robes, so
there were jokes."
"The Klugers were an exception," Jura said. "Acculturated Jews like the
Klugers were just like Poles." Actually, in one respect the Klugers were also
different from most of the Polish Catholics in Wadowice. The Klugers were rich.
Jerzy's grandmother owned a lot of prime real estate in the town. Dr. Kluger,
Jerzy's father, was a lawyer whose clients included some of the most
prosperous businessmen for miles around. As much as poor Catholics resented poor Jews,
they resented rich, educated Jews even more. Father Cjaikowski, a Catholic
priest who has spoken out against anti-Semitism in Poland, told us this about its
growth in this century. "Our nation was oppressed. Always under oppression,
nationalism is born. You are sick. You are under the boot, you start to
exaggerate as sick people...After World War I, we saw we had millions of Jews. These Jews are
intelligent people, well-educated and they seem to be competition."
Polish resentment of Jews was more than economics. In fact, Father
Cjaikowski said economics was used to justify an anti-Semitism which was based
in Christian attitudes. On Good Friday, Poles said a devotional prayer which
referred to Jews as "that pernicious race." They recited the "Good Friday
Reproaches," a list of accusations against the Jews. Over Easter, there was an
annual passion play at Kalwaria, where Wojtyla often retreated to pray and walk
the stations of the cross. He also attended performances of the passion play
where his grandfather and great-grandfather had volunteered as guides. People
from all over Poland flocked to the shrine to take part in the Savior's
crucifixion. The actor stumbled and bled as he pulled the cross up the to
Golgotha. Crowds were worked to a frenzy as Jesus died the victim of the Jews:
"the Christ killers!" Afterwards, as peasants streamed out of the monastery,
their passions stirred by religion and vodka, they often attacked Jews whose
distinctive Hassidic appearance made them easy to identify.
Anti-Semitism was official Church policy. In 1936, amid the rise of
nationalism, Primate Hlond expressed it with absolute clarity in the pastoral
letter which was read from pulpits across the country: "There will be a Jewish
problem as long as the Jews remain...It is a fact that the Jews are fighting
the Catholic Church, persisting in free thinking, and are the vanguard of
godlessness, Bolshevism and subversion...It is a fact that the Jews deceive,
levy interest and are pimps. It is a fact that the religious and ethical
influence of the Jewish young people on Polish people is a negative one." The
Catholic press portrayed Jews as interlopers and Hlond advocated a boycott of
their businesses. During the horrors of World War II, the Polish Catholic
Church, as Father Stanislaw Musial told us in his passionate interview, was
"indifferent to the Jews because of bad theology...We could not help the Jews
because we had no theology for helping the Jews."
The Klugers and Hupperts were unusual, not only because they dressed and
lived like members of the Catholic bourgeoisie, but also because they strove
to provide a countervailing influence to the anti-Semitism around them. They
were extremely public-spirited. The Hupperts had donated a park with tennis
courts to the city of Wadowice. Dr. Kluger supported an interfaith string
quartet which played at his house every week. The men of the family took turns
serving as presidents of the Jewish community. According to Darcy O'Brien, the
Jews in Wadowice had looked to them for generations "for their often subtle and
complex leadership that enabled the two cultures to live in mutual tolerance."
O'Brien even describes a daily ritual that illustrated the special
harmony the Klugers and Hupperts tried to cultivate in Wadowice. "The ritual of
the old priest and the woman was always the same. Canon Prochownik would appear
at the door of Mrs. Huppert's house at the corner of Zatorska Street on the
north side of the square, where she would be waiting for him, sporting a
parasol if the sun beat down...The pair inched along toward the church and
passed it by, proceeding to the right, talking...Each time Canon Prochownik
escorted Mrs. Huppert around the square, it was a sign that all was well
between Catholics and Jews."
Dr. Kluger was a practicing Jew who rejected Jewish separatism. When
Moishe Kussawiecki, one of the great cantors and opera singers, performed at
the Wadowice synagogue, Dr. Kluger invited several Catholics, among them
Lieutenant Wojtyla and Karol. As president of the Jewish community, he raised
money to support the Jewish poor, saw that all religious facilities were
maintained, and provided Kosher food for the Jewish soldiers stationed in
Wadowice. At the same time, he spoke Polish and forbade his family to speak
Yiddish. And yet, though he felt strongly about being mainstream, he encouraged
Jerzy, his son, to report to his history class on the rise of anti-Semitism in
the national press. In short, Jerzy was raised to be free-thinking and
Karol Wojtyla was not. He was raised as a Polish Catholic. He recited the
Good Friday Reproaches and could not have missed the crowds' cries of
"Christ killers" at Kalwaria. Yet Karol Wojtyla never displayed even a hint of
personal anti-Semitism. The sole Jewish survivor of the Wadowice ghetto still
living in Poland, Zygmund Ehrenhalt, attended the public school with Wojtyla
and Jerzy Kluger. He said there were anti-Semitic students, but that Karol "was
one of those whose behavior was model."
In one of the famous stories about their friendship, young Jerzy finds
out that he and Karol are going to be in the same class at school in the fall.
He can't wait to tell Wojtyla. When Jerzy realizes he's serving at Mass, he
decides to go find him at church. The service is not over when Jerzy enters. People notice
him. In such a small town, everyone knows who he is. One old woman in
particular eyes the young Jewish boy disapprovingly. As mass ends, Jerzy races
up to the altar to tell Karol his good news. Then he mentions the old woman's
"Maybe she was surprised to see a Jew in church."
"Why," Karol laughs. "Aren't we all God's children?"
Besides his friendship with Jerzy, Karol often played goalie for the
Jewish soccer team. He recited Mickiewicz with his Jewish neighbor, Ginka Beer.
As he said to the Warsaw Jewish community in 1991, "I belong to the generation
for which relationships with Jews was a daily occurrence." The Jewish presence
was intimately stitched into the richness of Karol's childhood world. During a
visit from an American delegation of rabbis, the Pope was asked about his early
experiences. Rabbi Ruden told us that he watched John Paul II go into a trance
as he recollected in Proustian detail the Jewish life of Wadowice. For John
Paul II, the Holocaust brought profound, personal losses--the deaths of people
he knew and cared for. It represents another way that personal suffering bound
him to Poland's history and fate.
Wojtyla moved to Krakow with his father in 1938. By the time they left
Wadowice, the Jews were being singled out for special hardship. Members of
the National Democratic Movement had smashed Jewish shops there. Dr. Kluger was
forced to add a Hebrew version to his name on his office. Dr. Sesia
Berkowtiz who grew up in Wadowice, but now lives in Israel told us "there was
always anti-Semitism, but it wasn't brutal until the Nazis came to power." When
the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, Dr. Kluger took Jerzy with him
into the Polish army. The men were permanently separated from the three women
of the family. As Wojtyla learned from letters that reached him in Krakow,
Jerzy's grandmother, mother and sister were forced into the Wadowice ghetto. He
knew that the Kluger women were deported to Auschwitz and that when the wind
was right, people in Wadowice could smell the ash from the crematoria there.
For a while, the sister of Karol's classmate, Eugeniusz Mroz, brought food to
the Jews in the Wadowice ghetto, but finally gave it up because of the danger.
Mroz himself watched the Germans blow up the synagogue. He gave us an
extraordinary picture he took just as the building flew into pieces.
Wojtyla would have seen the Jews in Krakow forced out of their homes and
watched while they carried their possessions into the Podgorce district.
This bestiality was carried out against the background of the most beautiful city
in Poland, the city of shadows and light, in whose very stones the country's
history was stored. Wojtyla adored Krakow, and he was shaken by the ugly
contrast between its rich antiquity and the brutality of modern war. On March
13, 1943, the Krakow ghetto was liquidated. The Germans shot scores of Jews
in lovely Zgoda Square, among them, Rabbi Seltenreich, who Wojtyla knew as the
Klugers' rabbi from Wadowice.
The destruction of the Jews in Poland during Word War II is an
extraordinary subject. Those of us who have come after cannot help but
wonder what we would have done. Within Poland itself, that question still burns,
along with passionate feelings of outrage towards certain almost unimaginable
cruelties. Konstantin Gebert, the editor of Midrash, was born after the
war. His consciousness of being Jewish was not raised until he experienced the
anti-Semitic assaults during 1968. Then he began to study and think about the
Jews' fate in Poland during the Holocaust. He told us that since he'd had
children, "I thank God every day I have not been tested. Because I fear I
would have failed the test. And my anger is not against them who refused to
help. One cannot demand heroism. My anger and utter contempt is for those who
helped the murderers. One cannot blame the Poles for not helping. This is not
the point. The point is those who helped...who would sell the Jew for a sack of
potatoes. This is what has not been accounted for."
During the early part of the war, Wojtyla showed personal courage
defending Jews. Sister Zofia Zarnecka, a university colleague, told us how
protective he was toward Anka Weber. "He often escorted her down the street and
fended off the bigots who called themselves, 'All-Poland Youth.'" We also spoke
to Edith Schiere, another Jewish Wadowician who now lives in Israel. During the
war, she miraculously escaped from Auschwitz and met Karol Wojtyla as she was
staggering down the road. He carried her to the train station on his back, put
her on the train and brought her something to eat. "I felt ashamed when my
Jewish friends said, 'Don't you know that he's a priest?' I didn't." But she
also felt terrible because she never had the chance to thank him.
There is every evidence that Wojtyla helped individual Jews because he was
a good Christian and believed in doing unto others as he would have them do
unto him. But there is no sign that he was part of any organized effort to save
Jews until some time after the war. There were Polish organizations like Zagoda
that worked to save Jews. There were priests and nuns who forged identity
papers. Poland was the only country under the Nazi Occupation where you could
be shot for helping a Jew. Adam Bujak, Poland's most famous contemporary
photographer, remembered people being shot for throwing bread over the ghetto
walls. In spite of all that, there were heroic ordinary Polish Catholics who
risked their lives to hide Jews. There are even stories of anti-Semitic
Catholics who hid Jews and resentfully called them "Christ killers" as they fed
them dinner. Wojtyla's lack of involvement is notable.
Could he have felt too threatened? It cut much deeper than simple physical
fear. Death was no stranger. He had lost mother, brother, father. Possibly
what he was feeling was his insubstantiality, that no effort however large or
small would matter. At the same time, any effort tainted by violence would put him in
the same contaminated world as the aggressors. Every event affirmed and
confirmed his helplessness and the horror of violence. When the Nazis first
arrived in Krakow, they closed the University and sent his professors to the
camp at Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg where many were murdered. One died because
he'd been doused with ice cold water and left outside in freezing weather.
Friends from the Rhapsodic Theatre had been deported to Auschwitz. Wojtyla was
himself arrested in a mass round-up in 1942, but released because he had a job
at a quarry. His papers showed he was a worker in a vital industry. Tad Szulc
describes how the other men arrested with him were sent to Auschwitz. "On a
sunny day in May, twenty-five of them were executed by a firing squad against
the 'Wall of Death' at the camp."
It was one of Wojtyla's several brushes with death during the war. At the
quarry, a worker next to him was killed. Karol was moved to the Solvay
factory,where he had more time to read and pray. But he still lived in guilt
and terror. Later, looking back on this period, John Paul II wrote, "Sometimes I
would ask myself: so many young people of my age are losing their lives, why
not me?" Possibly, his own fears shamed him: his fear of his own helplessness,
his fear of contamination, and even the fear of betraying a friend. His friend,
the writer Wojciech Zukrowski, said Wojtyla told him not to describe any
underground activities. "Karol was afraid if he were arrested, he might break
down and reveal what I'd said."
As the Nazis waged their war on the world around him, his work at the
theatre was not enough. Polish language and culture could not sustain him.
They were themselves under attack. This is how Darcy O'Brien describes the
German aggression against the Poles: "Through such methods as starvation,
imprisonment, random executions, and brutal working conditions, the Germans set
about trying to break the Polish spirit and to weed out those too biologically
weak for slavery." The German Governor of Krakow, General Frank said, "The
necessity arises to recall the proverb: 'You must not kill the cow you want to
milk.' However, the Reich wants to kill the cow...and milk it."
During the war, Wojtyla turned to the Polish Church--the only institution built on an indestructible, eternal truth. Yet even here, the Nazis
were trying to choke off the breath of Catholicism. As soon as they took over
Krakow, General Frank requisitioned the Royal Castle on Wawel Hill. He closed
Wawel Cathedral, one of the oldest Catholic repositories and the very heart of
religious life in Krakow. Frank allowed a priest to say Mass every Sunday, but
only to an empty church--Krakowians were not allowed to attend. Hitler himself
wrote General Frank that Polish priests "will preach what we want them to
preach. If any priests acts differently, we shall make short work of him. The
task of the priest is to keep the Poles quiet, stupid, and dull-witted...There
should be only one master for the Poles, the German."
Wojtyla had very real reason to believe that Nazis were going to destroy
the Polish Church, along with Polish culture and the Polish nation itself. As
Neal Ascherson said to us, "The genocide of the Poles appeared to be
already beginning...It's very difficult to imagine that people can say to themselves,
'Maybe in twenty-five years time there'll be nobody alive who speaks Polish.'
It seems outrageous, unimaginable. But that's how people thought. And the Nazis
helped them to think like that, by what they said and what they did." After all
he'd lost, the terror of losing the Word was too much. The Germans could kill
priests, but not the Priesthood; they could destroy churches, but not the
Church. When Karol Wojtyla joined Archbishop Sapieha's secret seminary in 1944,
he was giving himself to the only power of goodness left in a dark world. He
accepted it on its own terms. It was the last bastion of everything he loved.
It was not in his power to change it--not yet.
The Polish Church survived the war after all. What stronger argument could
there be for the triumphal view of Catholicism? Wouldn't it be natural for
the young Wojtyla to revel in the strengths his Church had shown? Or to depend on
his sense of the invincible Catholic Church as Stalin's new regime of terror
descended on Poland? As he moved from priest to Bishop, we know from Darcy
O'Brien's reporting that he was thinking and rethinking his war experience. In
1964, he was invited to Rome to participate in Vatican II. The bishops
discussed Nostra Aetate, in which John XXIII redefined the Catholic Church's
relation to the Jews. The document plainly said that the Jewish people were not
guilty of killing Christ. And it clearly asserted that Judaism has its own
ongoing integrity --Christianity had not replaced Judaism in God's eyes.
There were many bishops at the Vatican II Council who did not want these
points included. James Carroll, a former priest and well-known author, had a
friend who was there and told him about the fierce debate which took place over
whether or not the Jews were guilty of Christ's murder. In his interview with
us, Carroll recalled his friend saying, "All of a sudden down at the end of
the table, a man began to speak, a voice that he had not heard in any debate.
In many, many debates, on many other questions, he had never heard this voice.
He knew that it was a different voice because of the heavy accent. And the man
spoke of the Church's responsibility to change its relation to the Jews...'I
lifted up my head. I thought, Who is this prophet? I looked down and it was
this young bishop from Poland. And no one even knew his name. And it was the
first intervention Wojtyla made at the Council. And it was very important.
That's the beginning of the large public impact he would have on this
It's significant too that Wojtyla made his remarks outside Poland. We
never found evidence that he went on record within his own country before he
became Pope. In Poland after the war, there was a silence about the Holocaust.
Wojtyla was part of it. Everyone had suffered so much. Three million Poles died
in the war, and three million Jews. Every Polish family had lost someone.
There were simply not enough tears for the Jews. There was silence, but it
went beyond the indifference and guilt for not having done enough for the Jews.
There were also shockingly enough, reports of Poles killing the few surviving
Jews when they returned from the camps to reclaim their property. It happened
in Wadowice. It happened all over. Father Cjaikowski heard confessions from his
parishioners who admitted to hurting Jews, to holding on to their property and
on occasion, to murdering them: "it was as if the Jews were not human," he said
sadly. "It was as if the Jews were animals."
In 1968, the Communists stirred up a new and terrible anti-Semitic
campaign. The Catholic Church did not speak out. There was still no theology
for helping Jews. Some 34,000 Jews left Poland, among them Uliana Gabara,
Assistant Provost for International Education at the University of Richmond,
and her husband, Wlodek. "'68 was an absolute nightmare," she told us when we
spoke to her in New York. "The Communists were worried about a new assertion of
Polish nationalists. My mother said, 'You'll see, they'll blame it on the
Jews.' We jumped on her, deriding her pessimism. But soon it was on the radio
that the Jews were responsible. They started beating up people who looked like
Jews. Word was spread around that Minister of Higher Education had issued a
paper saying no Jew would teach in any higher institution. Wlodek was teaching
at Poly Tech. Then the Communists made it known that any Jew who wanted to
leave could apply to the Dutch Embassy to go to Israel, no where else. It was
terrifying. You never knew if they would OK you. In order to apply you had to
bring a request for permission to give up your Polish citizenship, a paper
from your employer, a paper from your housing...They considered our request for
three months. Then they give us only two weeks to get out. We had a piece of
paper saying, Holder of this document is not a Polish citizen. It was valid for
two weeks. In those two weeks we had to fold up our lives."
Cardinal Wojtyla did not speak out against the "bloodless pogrom" in
1968. Neither did Primate Wyszynski, though he did in one public sermon,
denounce the violence against the students and other nationalities, a veiled
reference to Jews. Given the tortured history of Catholics-Jews throughout
history and, in particular, during World War II, this silence is
extraordinary. Furthermore, by 1968, Hochhuth's play, "The Deputy," about the
silence of Pius XII during World War II had exploded onto the world stage. It
was showing in Krakow. The silence of the Church during World War II was a
subject being discussed, even written about, by Father Bardeicki in Tygodnik
Cardinal Wojtyla did make an extremely unusual personal gesture. At a
different time, in a country with a developed media, it would become a highly
visible public statement. He visited the synagogue in the Jewish District of
Krakow. No cardinal had ever made such a visit, but Tad Szulc, a biographer of
the Pope (and our consultant for this program), claims that
"Wojtyla insisted on doing it as a gesture of friendship and because he had
fought so hard for the Vatican Council's declaration removing the blame for
Christ's death from the Jews." We talked to Tadeusz Jakubowicz, son of the
chairman of the Krakow Jewish community who permitted Cardinal Wojtyla's visit.
Tadeusz remembered the visit, but not that it was prompted by any position the
Cardinal had taken in Rome. For him, the visit was a gesture Wojtyla made in
reference to the wave of anti-Semitism in 1968. For us, it was a rehearsal for
his historic visit to the Roman synagogue in 1986.
Few Polish Catholics raised questions about Wojtyla's silence before he
became Pope. Even fewer Polish Jews spoke out about it. Those who did
insisted on anonymity. An unnamed source--a former prime minister after
Communism fell, and an admirer of the Pope, would not go on-camera with his
revealing story. He told us that he actually asked Cardinal Wojtyla why he
would not speak out in 1968. Our source felt he should have. Cardinal Wojtyla
could only answer by shaking his head and putting his face in his hands.
The Director of the Jewish Museum in Warsaw, Feliks Tych, never met
Wojtyla, but has a complex sense of Wojtyla's reticence. He is one of the
rare Poles who was willing to go on record on this subject. In his
pre-interview, Tych said, "There are contradictions. Yes, he made the leap,
but there remain contradictions. There was a silence after the war. A shock, but no post
Holocaust shock. There was silence in the Church--and yes, I know it was
dangerous, but they could have spoken...On every level, they could have done
something." Then he reflected with us on why it took Wojtyla so long to act.
Finally, for Tych, the decisive moment was when Wojtyla got out of Poland. "I
only noticed it--his difference--when he became Pope. The key to his whole
attitude became more visible when he became more independent from the Polish
Tych quickly added that Wojtyla had never been suspected of any kind of
anti-Semitism. Still, he was part of a Church which had anti-Semites in it.
That, for Tych, was the reason Wojtyla did not act until he got to Rome. "The
answer lies here in Poland. In leaving Poland, Wojtyla freed himself to act, to
start the re-education program regarding Jews in the Church, to forge
diplomatic ties with Israel, to write the document on the Shoah."
Along the way there would be missteps: the convent at Auschwitz and the
crosses that still remain--why did it take so long for the Pope to ask the
sisters to move the convent back? There was also the canonization of Edith Stein, a Jewish
convert who died in Auschwitz. Critics of the Pope claimed she died as a Jew,
not because she was a Catholic martyr. Neal Ascherson
sees a fascinating
trajectory in the Pope's attitude towards Jews who convert. Ascherson was at
Auschwitz when the Pope visited in 1979. "I remember a long line of nuns went
past him and he blessed each one of them...Afterwards somebody who was
standing beside him said, 'The most extraordinary thing happened. One of the
nuns stopped and said, "I want you to know that I am a Russian Jew who
converted."' The Pope was immensely moved, tears ran down his face, and he
embraced her. I think that's very significant. Because he isn't free, to put it
mildly, of Catholic triumphalism about other faiths,even within Christianity."
Ascherson went on to point out that the Pope saw the Jewish nun's conversion to
Catholicism as a form of self-transcendence. For critics, Edith Stein is
emblematic of an imperial Catholic impulse to celebrate those who have seen the
light. Ascherson and others would credit the Pope for having developed further
than that. He has left his condescension behind--as demonstrated by his very
first words in the Jewish Synagogue when he called the Jews, "My older
In the end, John Paul II's journey is more, not less, remarkable for its
trajectory, for the growth and change, for evident deepening as he struggled
to overcome the limitations he inherited.
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