On 23 March 2000, seven Holocaust survivors stood in Yad Vashem’s Hall of Remembrance awaiting the arrival of Pope John Paul II.
For Edith Zierer, it was something of a reunion. In January 1945, a young priest had found the teenager, who had recently been liberated from a Nazi labour camp, alone on a bench, “eaten up by lice” and suffering from tuberculosis. Karol Wojtyla fed Zierer, carried her on his back two miles to a train station, and took her to Krakow, where she was reunited with relatives.
Fifty-five years on, Wojtyla – or Pope John Paul II as he now was – put his hand on Zierer’s shoulder. “I was so moved. I had closed a circle,” she later told an Israeli newspaper.
But by visiting Israel, the already ailing Pope, who was about to turn 80, had also closed a circle. It was the culmination of one of his Papacy’s greatest and most enduring achievements: to help salve the deep wounds caused by the Catholic Church’s highly problematic, and often painful, relationship with the Jewish people.
Saint John Paul’s visit to Israel – the first papal state visit to Israel – came just over six years after the Vatican and the Jewish state had established diplomatic ties. When the Pope’s predecessor, Paul VI slipped into Jerusalem on an 11-hour visit in 1964, he avoided even mentioning Israel by name.
John Paul, who was born 100 years ago this month, had no intention of delivering such a calculated snub; in 1987, he had publicly called for the world to recognise the right of Jews to a “homeland”. During his visit 13 years later, the Pope attempted to diplomatically navigate the treacherous politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
But a master of symbolism, John Paul also knew the power of bold gestures. Thus, at the Western Wall, he reiterated his previous apologies for Christians’ historic sins against the Jewish people in dramatic style, slipping a prayer which asked for forgiveness into a crack at Judaism’s holiest site.
Those sins were ones of which John Paul was painfully aware. At Yad Vashem, he was also reunited with Yosef Bienenstock, with whom he had grown up in the small Polish town of Wadowice before the war.
“Karol Wojtyla’s relationship with Jews and Judaism is one of the brightest and most attractive threads in this remarkable tapestry of a life,” writes Edward Stourton in his 2006 biography of the Pope, “and it begins with his childhood friendships.” Those included his lifelong friend Jerzy Kluger and a young neighbor, Ginka Beer, whose parents sent her to Palestine in the late 1930s to escape growing Polish anti-Semitism. “There was only one family that never showed any racial hostility towards us, and that was Lolek [Karol’s childhood nickname] and his Dad,” Ginka later recalled. In all, only 80 of Wadowice’s 2,500 Jews survived the war.
On his first journey overseas after his election as Pope, John Paul returned to Poland, and knelt in prayer at Auschwitz. “I couldn’t not come here,” he said as he became the first Pope to visit a death camp.
While his predecessor, the reforming Pope John XXIII, had broken with centuries of antisemitic Catholic teaching about Jews at the time of the 1965 Second Vatican Council, it fell to John Paul, as Rabbis Abraham Cooper and Yitzchok Alderstein of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre later wrote, to “boldly walk those steps into the public arena”.
In 1986, John Paul became the first Pope to pay an official visit to a synagogue – Rome’s Great Synagogue – where he described Jews as the “elder brothers” of Christians. A year later, having denounced antisemitism as sinful and “opposed to the very spirit of Christianity”, he called for Holocaust education to be taught in Catholic education. In 1998, the Vatican issued a document “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah” which spoke of the Church’s “deep sorrow for the failures of her sons and daughters in every age”.
There were, of course, missteps, including the Pope’s decision to meet with, and later honour, the controversial Austrian president Kurt Waldheim; the failure to fully open the Vatican archives or reckon with the alleged failings of his wartime predecessor, Pius XII; and the decision by a group of Carmelite nuns to establish a convent at Auschwitz (only a much-delayed personal appeal by the Pope for them to leave brought the matter to a close).
But, on the eve of his visit to Israel in March 2000, the Vatican declared a Day of Pardon in which it sought forgiveness for those it believed it had wronged.
Prominent among them were “the people of the Covenant”. The Jerusalem Post called the move “one of the most significant” of John Paul’s papacy. “Contrition for past anti-Semitism is now an integral part of Catholic liturgy, [sic]” it approvingly noted.
It was thus no exaggeration that, when John Paul passed away five years later, the Anti-Defamation League suggested: “More change for the better took place in his 27-year Papacy than in the nearly 2,000 years before.”