Special to the JTA Pope John Paul Ii and the Jews
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Special to the JTA Pope John Paul Ii and the Jews

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“He was the friendliest of the Polish Catholic bishops toward the Jews of Poland, and he was among the most vigorous in his rejection of anti-Semitism.” That was the description of Karol Cardinal Wojtyla of Cracow given to me by a Polish Catholic priest in the United States three days following the election of the Polish prelate as the 264th Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.

That evaluation of Pope John Paul It’s attitudes towards Jews and Judaism should be taken seriously, I believe, for several reasons:

First, those views come from Father Henri d’Anjou of Portchester, N.Y., who lived in Poland and personally helped save the lives of a large number of Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. Second, d’Anjou knew the new Pope when he was a priest, and met frequently with him between 1952 and 1956. Lastly, and importantly, d’Anjou’s positive impressions were confirmed for us in an overseas telephone conversation last week between the new director of foreign affairs of the American Jewish Committee, Abraham Karlikow, and a leader of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, Maciej Jakubowicz of Cracow.


From these conversations and from others conducted with reliable sources in the Vatican last week, the following portrait of the “track record” of Wojtyla toward Polish Jewry emerges:

Around 1964, there were a series of desecrations of Jewish cemeteries in Cracow, including defilements of tombstones over Jewish graves. It was widely believed that these anti-Semitic actions were inspired or carried out-Semitic actions were inspired or carried out by agents of the Polish Communist Party and/or the secret police. Wojtyla called upon Catholic students attending the University of Cracow to clean and restore the defiled tombstones and to repair the Jewish cemeteries.

Subsequently, Wojtyla delivered a public sermon during a large Corpus Christi procession in which he condemned the Communist functionaries for their anti-Jewish acts, and called upon them to desist from any further hostile actions against the remnant Jewish population.

His Chancery published a journal of high academic quality, “Common Weekly.” Wojtyla personally authorized the publication of a series of articles in that journal commemorating the victims of the Nazi holocaust, specifically the Jewish victims, as well as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of April 1943. In addition, he supported the publocation of a series of articles and book reviews on Jewish history, religion and culture.

Much has been made of the fact that the new Pope studied at “an underground seminary.” D’Anjou, who attended the same seminary, told me the significance of that fact lies in knowing that that seminary, and other underground schools like it, were vigorous centers “of anti-Nazi ideology and resistance.” In terms of his anti-totalitarianism positions, Pope John Paul II appears to hold the same ideological orientations as did his predecessor, Pope John Paul I.


According to the president of the Jewish religious communities in Poland, Maciej Jakubowicz, “Throughout his years as Bishop of Cracow, Wojtyla was always approachable by Jews, and periodically, he used to inquire what was happening to the Jews, particularly in relations to their religious life and their religious institutions.”

In 1971, four years after he was designated Cardinal by Pope Poul VI, Wojtyla came to the Cracow Synagogue during a Friday night Sabbath service. He spoke warmly with the small Jewish congregation and asked sympathetically what problems they had since he had heard they were having trouble maintaining their synagogues. Jakubowicz also informed the American Jewish Committee that the Cracow Jewish leadership approached Wojtyla when they had difficulty securing kosher meat, and that the Cardinal was both sympathetic and helpful.

“Over the years,” Jakubowicz added, “we know of no case where Cardinal Wojtyla or the Cracow Church was associated with any instance of anti-Semitic or other prejudicial statements or actions regarding the Jewish people.” One can only speak of the new Pope, the Cracow Jewish leader said, “in excellent terms as a person and as an open-minded religious leader.” To underscore their positive feelings, the Cracow Jewish leaders last week sent a cable to Pope John Paul II congratulating him as their “Cracow landsman.”

With regard to Israel and Jerusalem, Pope John Paul has no record as yet as having taken any position on these concerns, which are central to the world Jewish community today.


Granted that this data is skimpy and impressionistic, it should nevertheless serve to allay some of the widespread anxieties that clearly exist in the Jewish community about “a Polish Pope.” Those anxieties are based on the nightmarish experience with anti-Semitism in Poland that Dr. Lucy Dawidowicz summarized in her landmark study, “The War Against the Jews 1933-1945,” in these words:

“The Republic of Poland had come into being in 1919, after its representatives had signed a treaty with the Allied powers, promising to guarantee the civic and political equality of its minorities, to safeguard their rights as citizens, and in addition, to extend to all minorities the right to establish their own educational, religious, charitable, and social institutions. From the start these guarantees were never fully implemented, and in 1934, they were completely renounced. Pogroms marked the inauguration of Poland’s independence and were a recurring phenomenon in the twenty years of independent Poland.”

Before the outbreak of World War II, about 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland, constituting the second largest Jewish community in the world. Today, there are about 5000 Jewish survivors in Poland, most of them aged and infirm, a tragic remnant of the Nazi havoc and anti-Semitic pogroms they suffered in the country in which Jews had lived for nearly a thousand years. In contrast to other Polish prelates, foremost among them the late Cardinal Hlond, who in 1937 delivered a vicious anti-Semitic pastoral calling for the boycott of Jews by the Catholic faithful, the new Pope is considered to be a “post-World War II man, a man of social justice and of human rights.”

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