Friday, December 30, 2005

Pope John Paul the Great

I have been reading a review of the year in the Catholic Herald which brought back many memories of Pope JP2. As we are a Catholic-Jewish family and it is currently Hannukah as well as Christmas, I thought I'd share a story with a Jewish theme. After the death of the Pope a fellow congregant from Tevye's synagogue visited to offer sympathy. (Aside: Yet another little piece of evidence of the stature of JP2, as were the glowing letters of sympathy and tribute sent to our Church by a number of Protestant Churches in our town.) He also brought with him a book containing a story he thought I might like to read. This is the gist of it ...

Early in the Second World War a young Jewish couple were living in the Krakow ghetto. Seeing the way things were going, the mother managed to smuggle their only child, a boy, out of the ghetto to a kind woman living in nearby village who agreed to care for him for as long as necessary. All the mother asked was that she should always remember that he was Jewish and when things were once again safe she should make arrangements for him to be raised in his own faith. After the war it became clear that the parents had perished along with the rest of the Jews of Krakow. By this time the foster-mother had come to think of the child as one of her own, and regularly took him to Mass with her. As he was now orphaned she decided to have him baptised and requested baptism for him from the young parish priest. Gently questioning the woman about the boy's background, the priest established that he was Jewish and that the parent's wishes were that he should be raised accordingly. He refused baptism. Realising that it was her duty to follow the mother's instructions, the woman managed to trace relatives of the boy in America and he was sent to live with them. The foster-mother kept in touch and many, many years later, the man - now a committed Jew - received a letter from her following the election of Pope John Paul II. She wrote to tell him the name of the priest who refused to baptise him ... Karol Wojtyla.

I wonder now whether Tevye's family also had a distant connection with Pope JP2. Tevye's father came from what was then the German Free State of Danzig, and is now the Polish Gdansk. By 1939 the family were scattered. The father had died in 1938. Two brothers escaped to England and a third, Joachim, was living with his mother Marie in Wadowice, Poland - the home town of Karol Wojtyla. Knowing that the future pope had many friends among the Jewish community there, I can't help wondering whether he ever knew Joachim and Marie. We will never know, as they did not live to see the Polish pope, or even to see their family again. Marie perished during the war, we think in Auschwitz. Joachim survived the war but died of TB a year or two later without ever being able to rejoin his brothers. For myself, I am grateful to Pope John Paul the Great not just for his inspired leadership of the Catholic Church and his personal example of Faith lived to the full, but also for his love and respect for my husband's people.

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