The personal story of an American Jewish man who as a child during the Holocaust was hidden by a Polish Catholic couple demonstrates a respect for Judaism by the young priest who became Pope John Paul II.
In an account of the saving of little Shachne Hiller, recorded in “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust” (Avon Books, NY, 1982), Hiller, renamed Stanley Berger, told author/editor Yaffa Eliach that in 1946 a newly ordained priest named Karol Wojtyla refused to baptize him a Catholic despite a request by the woman who had cared for him as her own.
Berger told Eliach that through a letter from the woman in Poland who had saved him, he learned that she, Mrs. Yachowitch, had approached “a newly ordained parish priest who had a reputation for being wise and trustworthy” to convert him “as a true Christian and devout Catholic” after she knew for certain that his parents had died in the crematoria. The priest refused after asking what was the wish of the boys’ parents in entrusting him to their Christian friends. Yachowitch acknowledged that his parents, in face of their almost certain death, requested that their son be raised as a Jew, to which Father Wojtyla replied that “it would be unfair to baptize the child while there was still hope that the relatives of the child might take him.”
THREE LETTERS AND A WILL
In 1942, when the boy’s parents, Helen and Moses Hiller, realized what their probable fate would be in the Cracow ghetto where they lived, Helen Hiller took her little son Shachne to trusted Catholic family friends on the Aryan side in the town of Dombrowa to be hidden. She left with her son three letters and a will.
In a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Yachowitch, the Hillers asked that the couple bring the boy up as a Jew and return him to his people in case of his parents’ death. The Hillers included in that letter the names of relatives in Montreal and Washington.
In a letter to Shachne, his parents wrote how much they loved him, told him of his Jewish heritage and that they wanted him to grow up proud of this.
The third letter contained a will written by Helen Hiller’s mother, Reizel Wurtzel, and was addressed to her sister-in-law in Washington, Jenny Berger. Describing the true conditions in the ghetto, the deaths of family members and the deportations, she wrote that her grandson had been “given to good people,” but that if none of them should return to please take the child and “bring him up righteously.” She also asked that the Yachowitches be rewarded for their efforts to save Shachne.
The Cracow ghetto was liquidated in March 1943. Many inhabitants were sent to Auschwitz. The Yachowitches inquired constantly after the Hillers and finally learned they had perished.
The Catholic family moved around frequently at times even hiding in barns and haystacks. Shachne and the Yachowitches became increasingly attached to each other, and the boy attended mass with them regularly. In 1946, the request that the child be baptized was made to Wojtyla, who refused, saying “there was still hope that the relatives of the child might take him.”
Yachowitch then mailed the letters to the relatives in the U.S. and Canada, and both responded affirmatively their desire to take Shachne. A legal battle ensued for four years because Polish law forbade Polish orphan children to leave Poland. However, in 1949 the Canadian Jewish Congress received permission from the Canadian government to bring 1,210 orphans to that country. Shachne was among them because a Polish judge had awarded the boy to representatives of the Canadian and American relatives.
In 1950, he was sent to Washington, D.C., where he was adopted and grew up as Stanley Berger, and continued to write to his foster parents in Poland. In October 1978, when Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, Mrs. Yachowitch wrote to Stanley Berger, revealing to him for the first time that she had considered converting him to Catholicism, but was denied this wish by a well-meaning priest who had now become Pope.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.