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Grandson of Holocaust Victim Fights for Pope’s Poland Birthplace

October 5, 1999
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The pope’s boyhood home has become a battleground between a New York psychiatrist and the Polish government.

After a 30-year campaign, Dr. Ron Balamuth has started legal action in a Polish court to recover the house, an imposing structure overlooking the town square.

The house in the Polish town of Wadowice, which had been owned by Balamuth’s grandfather, Yechiel, was seized by the state after he was sent in 1940 to his death at a concentration camp.

The legal battle over the house on Church Street has been transformed into a matter of international significance because the first floor of the three-story house, which Yechiel Balamuth rented out, was the birthplace and boyhood home of Karol Wojtyla — known to the world since 1978 as Pope John Paul II.

Balamuth was emboldened in his campaign to take on the Polish government and the Vatican — which have refused to recognize or even discuss his claim – – after the pope’s recent visit to the Polish town, a 20-minute drive from the site of the Auschwitz death camp.

As he sat on an upholstered wooden seat outside a church next door to the house, the pope reminisced about the first 18 years of his life, which were spent at 2 Church St.

“With filial affection I embrace the home of my birth,” the ailing, 79-year-old pontiff declared. “This house, this house where I lived, belonged to Mr. Balamuth. I don’t know what became of him. I think he died.”

The pope added: “I know the Jews of Wadowice endured many hard trials. Many were killed in the ghettoes and then in the camps because of the extermination acts of the Hitler regime.”

Balamuth believes the pope’s words will corroborate his claim to the family home, now a Catholic shrine attracting more than 200,000 visitors a year.

Still held by the state, the house is rented to the Roman Catholic Church, which set up a plaque that proclaims it as the birthplace of the pope.

Nuns now live on the top floor of the dwelling. Most of the rest of the house is filled with memorabilia of the pope’s youth — a pair of skis, his camping equipment, the vestments he wore. The building also houses a souvenir shop.

Balamuth’s attorney, Ayall Schanzer, who accompanied Balamuth to meet local officials at the Wadowice town hall in a bid to resolve the claim, says the house has a dual symbolism: It is holy to Catholics, but it is also a symbol of all Jewish families in Poland and the rest of Europe.

“We would like to see this other symbolic significance recognized,” he said.

When Balamuth and his lawyer pair visited the town, Wadowice spokesman Stanislaw Katorba lectured them about how much money local officials had spent over the years to maintain the house.

“And you do realize,” replied Schanzer, “that for all those years you haven’t paid a nickel to use our property.”

Now lawyers on both sides are trying to agree on the text of a new plaque that is intended to recognize the house as the home of both the pope and the Holocaust victim.

In the meantime, it appears unlikely that Balamuth will ever learn more about the atmosphere in the house when the pope and his own family lived there: A letter to the pontiff requesting a private audience to discuss his reminiscences has gone unanswered.

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