Behind the Headlines Another Side of Pope John Paul Ii
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Behind the Headlines Another Side of Pope John Paul Ii

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The Vatican and its all-powerful head, the Pope, have played a crucial role in Jewish life for half a century now. Voluntarily like Pope John XXIII or involuntarily like Pope Pius XII they have affected the lives, and, some say the deaths, of millions of Jews throughout the world.

Historians are still scanning the “silences” of Pius XII whom many blame for Hitler’s rise to power and the “final solution.” Rabbis and liberal groups still act on the basis of the dialogue instituted by Pope John while political leaders take into consideration Paul VI statements on Jerusalem and the Middle East.

For the first time in contemporary history the Vatican has at its head a man who seems never to have taken an interest in the Jewish question and this in spite of the fact that the greatest Jewish Holocaust took place in his native country, Poland, and never to have made a statement on the Jews, Jerusalem or the Middle East. The newly elected Pope, John Paul II, has steadfastly remained aloof from all these problems.

As Karol Cardinal Wojtyla of Cracow, he has never had any contact with the Polish Jewish community or with visiting foreign Jewish delegations. He has never visited what was left of the Warsaw Jewish ghetto in which over one million Polish Jews suffered before their final deportation and death, nor that of his own home city of Cracow in which he lived all his life. Catholic priests who had worked with him at his See explained that “Warsaw is outside his diocese” and that “there was no ghetto in Cracow.”


The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has talked with a number of his former aides in Poland and has also contacted the Polish news agency “Interpress” for details concerning the new Pope’s former life and work. As one Catholic priest who had worked with him for years told the JTA by telephone from Poland, “The Cardinal simply seemed uninterested in this issue. He was far too busy and overloaded with what seemed and were more urgent problems such as defending and making the Catholic church prosper in a Communist state.”

During the war years, young Karol Wojtyla was mainly interested in theatrical activities. He organized and ran an amateur group, “Rhapsodia,” which played a variety of plays including some by William Shakespeare and other British authors. Several prominent Polish Catholics told JTA that this activity “is considered by us as an act of resistance to the German occupation.” The group also played in Catholic schools and for various workers groups.

Young Wojtyla, who had always been highly religious and interested in theology, in 1942 joined the Catholic seminary. He also started working in the chemical factory belonging to the “Solvay” group to obtain an “arbeitskarte” which would protect him from possible deportation to a German work camp. He seems to have worked only part time at the “Solvay” factory and when arrested once as a hostage by the Germans he was immediately released after the intervention of the Catholic Bishop.

Both local priests and Interpress told JTA that he was not active in the resistance aside from his theatrical activities and had had no contact with Jews nor the opportunity to help any of them. Both these sources added, “He might have done some things during this period about which we have no knowledge.” But both sources said this “seems highly unlikely.”

Wojtyla was ordained in 1946 and after a doctorate in philosophy proceeded to take one in theology. Part of these studies were at the Lublin Catholic University where he picked up some Hebrew. Some of his former aides say that his Hebrew “is good enough to read even some modern texts and the Cardinal might possibly even speak a few words in this language.”

The Cardinal learned Hebrew, these sources explain, as part of his theological studies and not because of any particular interest in the language. “The Cardinal is just very gifted for foreign languages and probably picked up more Hebrew than someone else would have done in the course of similar studies,” the sources say. The Pope speaks Polish, Russian, English, French, Italian, German and Spanish besides Latin and ancient Greek.


The Cardinal also never met, as for as his former aides can remember, with surviving Polish Jews or visiting Jewish delegations. His former secretary told me “the Cardinal most probably would have received a Jewish delegation but none ever requested an audience. It just simply never happened. The Cardinal never had the opportunity to meet Jews.”

Local Jews still living in Cracow told the JTA they never had an opportunity to call on him. “You must understand,” a local Jew said, “that for us here he was a more important man than (President Edward) Gierek himself. For us the Cardinal was a very important man, not only the head of the local Catholic church but somehow he appeared to most as the ruler, the Prince of this very Catholic city with its dozens of churches, seminaries and social centers. We would never have dreamed to ask to meet him or to invite him to a Jewish function. It just seemed inconceivable.”

The same local Jew added: “Our relations with the local Catholic church have been very good and we were even told that at the time of (President Wladyslaw) Gomulka’s anti-Jewish and anti-Israel statements (in 1968), the Cardinal protested. It was a rumor and we never had any confirmation that it was true. It helped us, however, in our daily relations with the local Catholic parishes and faithful.”


The conclusion from all these interviews and conversations is that the new Pope has up till now refrained, either voluntarily or because of lack of interest, from any contact with Jews in Poland or abroad. He has often visited Paris, Rome and other West European capitals but as for as it is known has never met a Jew.

He has also never shown any apparent interest in the Holocaust and the martyrdom of Poland’s Jews except within the wider context of “human persecutions.” On the Middle East he never took any stand except to pray for Jerusalem “the city of Christ” and to launch a plea on behalf of Lebanon after his election.

Pope John Paul II is the first Pole to head the Catholic church. He is also the first Cardinal in recent years who is a complete enigma to Jewish observers and to Middle East scene watchers. Relatively young, 58, no one can even dare to guess whether his reign will be more like John’s or more like Paul’s.

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