Blessed John Paul II is well remembered for the efforts he made towards solidarity with his “elder brothers” in the Jewish community. Much of his respect for the Jewish people came from his living and growing with Jewish friends throughout his childhood in Poland. Gian Franco Svidercoshi explored the Holy Father’s history and its impact on his push for positive Christian-Jewish relations:
In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the Pope wrote: “Behind the words of the Council declaration there is the hope of many men, both Jews and Christians. There is also my own personal experience from the early stages of my life in my hometown.” Here it is: it must therefore signify something - on the providential plan and not only on that of the plan of coincidence - that the author of the turning of this dialogue of the Catholic Church with its brothers of Israel was a Pope for whom, as an adolescent and a boy, the cohabitation with Jews was part of every day life.
Wadowice, where Karol Wojtyla was born and lived until he was 18 years old, was a town of ten thousand inhabitants, of which three thousands were Jews. And they lived, Catholics and Jews, in a serene climate, without conflict. Karol lived in a house, whose proprietor, Balamut, was Jewish. Also Jewish was Ginka Beer, older by some years, who lived on the floor above, and who, was the first to bring him into the theater. Many of his friends from school were also Jewish, like Jerzy Kluger, a great friend still today; and Zygmunt Selinger, Leopold Zwieg; and Poldek Goldberger, who played goalie, like Wojtyla when they played soccer.
So, the future Pope knew Judaism from the inside. Through the day-to-day of friendship, of total esteem and reciprocal tolerance. Through the acquaintance of many people. But also on the religious and spiritual level. In the parish, during the evening services, he was always struck by the Psalm 147, that of the invitation to Jerusalem to glorify the lord because it strengthened the pillars of his door, it blessed his children. Many years later, the Pope, would remember: “Both religious groups, Catholics and Jews, were united, I believe, by the knowledge of praying to the same God. Notwithstanding the diversity of language, the prayers in the Church and the Synagogue were based on the considerable measure of the same texts.”
There is then a second aspect, to explain those which we could call the Jewish «roots» of John Paul II. And it is here by the light of his own personal history, in particular in his younger years. And it is having lived close, even without being able to know the true reality and the true dimensions of the great tragedy of the Jewish people, the Holocaust. At the origin of that there was the horrible design of Hitler. The “final solution” as was called the plan to make disappear, into nothingness, the Jewish race on the entire European continent.
The Pope recalled, still in Crossing the Threshold of Hope: “Then came the Second World War, with its concentration camps and programmed extermination. In the first place, it was the sons and daughters of the Jewish nation which suffered, just because they were Jewish. Whoever lived then in Poland, became, even if only indirectly, in contact with this reality. This was then, even my own personal experience, an experience which I have brought in me even today.”
Keep following us here and on our Facebook page for more stories about the life of Blessed John Paul II as we prepare for his canonization.