This is FRONTLINE's old website. The content here may be outdated or no longer functioning.

Browse over 300 documentaries
on our current website.

Watch Now
frontline: pope john paul II - the millennial pope

John Paul II -- His Life and Jane Barnes and Helen Whitney    Jane Barnes is the co-writer and Helen Whitney is the producer, director and co-writer of FRONTLINE's John Paul II-The Millennial Pope

pope with arms outstretched 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 intellectual pope.

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.

LANDSCAPE by Jane Barnes

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 past."

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 history."

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 leaders.

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 tasted like.

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 tragic muse.

Edmund Wojtyla with his parents 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 deeply.

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 drama.

Karol Wojtyla in 1938Kotlarcyzk 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 East."

The JEWS by Jane Barnes and Helen Whitney

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 Poland.

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 research.

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 behavior.

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 independent.

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 disapproval.

"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 question."

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 Powszechny .

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.

Pope John Paul II at a Jewish grave 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 Church."

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 brothers..."

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.


home | discussion | interviews | his faith | testimonies on faith | the church and sexuality | the pope and communism

biography | anecdotes | his poems | "abba pater" | encyclicals | video excerpt | tapes & transcripts | synopsis | press | teachers' guide
FRONTLINE | pbs online | wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation



../sex/ ../etc/faith.html ../interviews/ ../talk/ ../