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What did Pope John Paul II do in World War II?

It's not fair to say the future pope acquiesced to the Nazis

Sunday, March 05, 2000

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Religion Writer

Last year I began to hear an odd retelling of the life of the youth who grew up to become Pope John Paul II. In this version Karol Wojtyla lived passively under the Nazi occupation of Poland and turned a blind eye to the Holocaust.

I heard it first last year in a flawed PBS documentary, which had failed to get even basic facts about Wojtyla's family relationships correct. In my review for the Post-Gazette, I wrote that it was reasonable to ask whether the 20-year-old Wojtyla could have done more to aid Jews -- but limitations of space prevented me from adding that the film failed to explore the reasonable answers to that question.

Then, in a recent speech, the Zionist scholar Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg -- who was a source for the PBS documentary -- reiterated that Wojtyla lived quietly during the war, did not defy the Nazis, and entered the priesthood as an escape from real life. He presents Wojtyla as a child of Polish anti-Semitism who later repented and began to defend Jews.

I'm not Catholic, but for 20 years it has literally been my business to learn all I can about Pope John Paul II. The description of Wojtyla "acquiescing" to the Holocaust -- as The New York Times summed it up -- utterly fails to consider his circumstances or his understanding of priesthood.

I have long been fascinated with the stories of those who rescued Jews from the Nazis. It seems clear from my reading that not everyone could do so directly. Rescuers needed resources, such as a farm to supply food for people without ration cards, money to deal with black marketeers, long-standing relationships with neighbors who would not inform on them or a home that was architecturally quirky enough to conceal a secret room. At minimum, they needed an attic or cellar with an obscure entrance.

Wojtyla, who was penniless even before the war, had lived for just one year in a tiny basement apartment in Krakow. When he briefly sheltered a girl from his hometown who was trying to escape slave labor, his landlords told him to send her away because they would not risk an unregistered tenant.

It has been said that Wojtyla should at least have smuggled false papers to Jews. By at least one credible account, he did so. But, for the moment, I will assume that is one of many myths that circulated early in his papacy.

Because Germany wanted young men as slave laborers, youths on city streets were magnets for the Gestapo and poor choices as underground couriers. Those who did such work often disguised themselves as women -- which would have been difficult for Wojtyla, often described as "built like an NFL linebacker" before age and illness shrank him. Any network that accepted him as a courier would have run a high risk of exposure.

Wojtyla survived in Krakow only because he obtained a permit saying that his work -- first at a limestone quarry and later at a chemical factory -- was essential to the Nazi war effort. The quarry and factory were havens for young men in the resistance, and Wojtyla was among them. He did the anti-Nazi work for which he was most skilled: propaganda.

He was pledged to UNIA, which ran 20,000 guerrillas, provided false papers to 50,000 Jews, and hid 2,500 Jewish children. UNIA also sponsored "cultural resistance," which involved upholding a vision of a democracy, human rights, faith and religious freedom.

Wojtyla -- who was an aspiring actor -- was part of an underground theater company that fostered those ideals through secret plays held in homes. When he wrote his first three plays in 1939 and 1940, his heroes were Jews drawn from the Bible: David, Job and Jeremiah.

Wojtyla didn't choose his theatrical work out of cowardice. The actors would have been executed if they had been caught.

His entrance into the underground seminary in 1943 placed his life in even greater danger. But he saw the priesthood as a way to help the world, not to escape from it. He was influenced by the work of St. John of the Cross, and his description of the saint's decision to become a monk is also an explanation of his own calling:

"He is not washing his hands of his human and Christian responsibilities. On the contrary, in taking this step he is committing himself to living with full awareness the very heart of the faith by seeking the face of God, by listening to His word and putting it into practice, and by surrendering himself to the service of his neighbor."

Wojtyla's first serious biographer, Harvard professor George Huntson Williams -- who had known Wojtyla personally -- wrote that the seminarians in Krakow provided false papers to Jews. But John Paul's most recent biographer, George Weigel, did not ask John Paul about that because Weigel believed Wojtyla's resistance record was well established.

The accusation that Wojtyla did nothing to help Jews is apparently based on a single, brief inquiry from film maker Marek Halter, who had wanted to include John Paul in a documentary on rescuers. Halter said he asked the pope if he had many Jewish friends before the war, and John Paul said "yes." Halter then asked if John Paul had done anything to save them, and the pope said, "I don't believe I -- no. No."

Halter asked nothing else, and John Paul "took me in his arms like a brother with a very bad, guilty feeling," Halter said in the PBS documentary.

But is that the whole story? Halter's question strikes me as one about John Paul's boyhood friends in Wadowice. When the war came, Wojtyla was 30 miles away in Krakow, without a car or telephone and with Germans in between. Certainly he feels terrible that he did not help his friends -- but does that mean he had any real chance of doing so? And does it mean that, as a seminarian disguised as a priest, he never gave false baptismal records to anonymous souls from the underground?

Wojtyla was deeply aware of the Holocaust. In 1937 -- mute from sorrow and outrage -- the 17-year-old had accompanied a close Jewish friend, Gingka Beer, to the Wadowice train station for the first leg of a one-way trip to Palestine. She had been forced out of medical school and warned Wojtyla that more virulent persecution would spread from Germany to Poland.

A year later as a college freshman, Wojtyla fought the imposition of anti-Semitic policies at his school. Until the Nazis closed the university, he escorted a Jewish student about campus to protect her from anti-Semitic bullies. Early in the occupation another Jewish girl with whom he had often appeared on stage was shot dead on the street.

Wojtyla was raised among Jews in Wadowice, where he sometimes played goalie on the synagogue soccer team. The cardinal archbishop of Warsaw was an outspoken anti-Semite, but Wojtyla's parish priests refused to propagate the cardinal's teaching. John Paul recalls his pastor preaching that anti-Semitism is anti-Christian.

His pastor seems to have been influenced by a movement of priests who believed that the church must respect Jews and Judaism. Thirty years later at Vatican II, young Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow helped to make that the official doctrine of the church.

John Paul has said he grew up knowing that Jews and Christians prayed to the same God. When he became the first pope since St. Peter to preach in a synagogue, he was credited with declaring that Jews are the "elder brothers" of Christians. But that was a quotation from a famous Polish poet Wojtyla studied as a school boy. When some boys at his grade school taunted a Jewish classmate, their teacher responded by reading that poem to the class.

World War II -- and particularly the Holocaust -- is the fulcrum on which John Paul's theology turns. The major lesson he tries to instill through nearly all of his social teaching is how to make the cry "Never Again!" a reality.

His skills and circumstances may have dictated that he play one role and not another in the resistance. But he risked everything to resist and to urge others to do likewise.

To say that he did nothing is an attempt to rewrite history. And one of the enduring lessons of the Holocaust is that such revision is the root of great evil.

Ann Rodgers-Melnick covers religion for the Post-Gazette.

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