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Commentary: John Paul II, The Jewish Saint

c. 2011 Religion News Service

(RNS) When the Vatican beatifies someone and places the person just one step away from sainthood, it usually attracts scant attention among Jews because it is correctly perceived as an internal church process.

But the recent beatification — and likely canonization — of the late Pope John Paul II is different. The Jewish community remembers the Polish-born Karol Wojtyla as the best pope the Jews ever had.

The throngs of people who turned out for the May 1 beatification have all gone home, and now the search begins for a second miracle attributed to John Paul’s intercession. As he moves along the path to sainthood, Jews are among those cheering him on.


When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, there were an estimated 3.5 million Polish Jews, the inheritors of a rich religious, intellectual and cultural life. At the time, Jews represented 10 percent of Poland’s population, and about a quarter of young Karol’s classmates in his hometown of Wadowice.

By the end of World War II in 1945, the Nazis had murdered 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, half of them Polish Jews.

Because Poland was the Nazis’ chief killing field, Wojtyla required no university seminars or academic papers to instruct him about the radical evil of the Holocaust. Poland was “Ground Zero” for mass murder. Wadowice is not far from the infamous Auschwitz death camp, and the future pope saw Jewish friends and neighbors arrested and transported to the gas chambers.


John Paul’s election in 1978 was initially met with skepticism by many Jews, who feared he might reflect the long record of anti-Semitism that had poisoned much of Jewish life in Poland. How wrong they were.

The tragedy of the Holocaust and a warm personal relationship with Jews were both etched into the pope’s head and heart. During his 27-year pontificate, John Paul’s positive actions earned him an honored place in Jewish history.

In April 1986, John Paul visited Rome’s Grand Synagogue, the first papal visit to a Jewish house of worship in nearly 2,000 years. In his address, the pope reminded the world’s 1 billion Catholics that Jews are “our elder brothers in faith,” and said the covenant God made with the Jews at Mt. Sinai is “irrevocable.”


In 1994, the Vatican and the State of Israel established full diplomatic relations. The official document spoke of “combating all forms of anti-Semitism and all kinds of racism and of religious intolerance.” The same year, John Paul hosted a Vatican concert to commemorate the Holocaust. I attended that historic event, and I will never forget the pope’s emotional call to never forget the Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust.

John Paul’s personal intervention helped resolve the toxic 10-year crisis over a Carmelite convent located inside the Auschwitz building where the Germans stored the poison gas used to murder Jews.

In March 1998, the Vatican released “We Remember,” a reflection on the Holocaust. In that document, the pope, who years earlier had called anti-Semitism a sin against God, urged Catholics — and indeed, all Christians — “to examine themselves on the responsibility which they too have for the evils of our time.”


Two years later and in failing health, John Paul, the most traveled pope in history, visited Israel. While in the Jewish state, he was a guest of the Israeli president and the Chief Rabbinate. John Paul spent time at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, where he met with Polish Jewish survivors.

The most enduring image of the papal visit to Israel, and perhaps of John Paul’s entire papacy, came when the ailing pontiff slowly and painfully walked to Judaism’s holiest site: the Western Wall. In an unforgettable moment, John Paul placed a personal prayer into a crevice of the sacred wall seeking forgiveness for Christian hostility towards Jews and Judaism:

“God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations: we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”

And that, even though it won’t help make him a saint, is miracle enough for me.

(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published Christians & Jews, Faith to Faith: Tragic History, Promising Present, Fragile Future.)

  • Pingback: Commentary: John Paul II, The Jewish Saint – (blog) » The Legends of the Jews

  • allen maller

    Many Poles who are interested in Klezmer music and other aspects of Jewish culture may have Jewish souls according to an American Progressive Rabbi; Allen Maller who was a scholar in residence at the Reform Synagogue Beit Warzawa in September and October of 2010. Rabbi Maller spoke of a Kabbalah teaching that Jewish souls from previous generations of Jews who were cut off from the Jewish people and left no Jewish descendants, were reincarnated in their non-Jewish descendants 3-7 generations later.

  • Rabbi Allen S.Maller

    Pope John Paul’s Jewish Miracle

    A second public miracle is needed in order to proclaim Pope John Paul II a saint, and that second miracle could be the revival of Jewish music and Jewish life in Poland, according to Reform Rabbi Allen S. Maller, who was a visiting scholar for two months at Beit Warszawa, a Reform synagogue, in the Fall of 2010.
    Rabbi Maller points to an interview of Sir Gilbert Levine by Cecile S. Holmes, distributed by Religious News Service (1/5/11) that revealed John Paul’s role in the resurrection of Jewish music in Poland by the Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow.
    Sir Gilbert Levine, whose conducting career spanned the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic and the Dresden Staatskapelle, was a Jew from Brooklyn. In 1987, Levine was invited to be guest conductor and artistic director of the Krakow Philharmonic in John Paul’s native Poland. The invitation was unsettling since Levine’s grandparents had fled Poland to escape the Nazis and members of his wife’s family had died in Auschwitz. Also living in Krakow in 1987 meant living behind the Iron Curtain, but Levine accepted anyway.
    Soon after Levine arrived in Krakow, the Vatican invited him to Rome for an audience with Pope John Paul. That invitation led to others, and Levine was invited to conduct a concert in 1988 to mark the 10th anniversary of John Paul’s election. Thus began almost two decades of musical collaboration and a joint mission of peacemaking. Three years later, in 1991, the first public Jewish Cultural Festival was held in Krakow. John Paul and Levine also worked together on a 1994 concert to commemorate the Holocaust.
    When Levine arrived in Krakow there was no Jewish music festival in Krakow; but his presence and his close connection with the first Polish Pope inspired some Poles in 1989 and 1990 to dream of reviving the Jewish musical tradition in Poland. Today there are more than two dozen Polish klezmer bands and several Polish groups that play and sing both Yiddish and Hebrew songs. Today there are Liberal Reform synagogues with Rabbis in Warsaw (2) and Krakow (1) that welcome Poles to programs of Jewish music and culture. The partnership of a Polish Pope and a Jewish conductor, stimulated a musical engagement of Poles with Jewish souls, and Jewish music for Polish souls.
    Levine still recalls his friendship with the pope with a touch of wonder.
    Q: Tell me how your relationship with the pope affected you.
    A: It deepened my faith, and he honored that Jewish faith wonderfully. It deepened my music making. I understand the spiritual side of music in a deeper and better way than I ever did before. It made me understand that there is no such thing as judging a person by the country they come from, the religion they practice or any other surface issue. Only by the character of their soul should a person be judged. I was always astonished by the fact that he could let me into his life the way that he did. For him to have been open to such a friendship is just amazing.
    Q: What are the most important things you learned from the pope?
    A: My 17 years with John Paul taught me so much. The power of music and spirit to foster hope, transformation, healing and love. And more about the mysteries of faith, not one but three—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The potential for reconciliation and redemption in the face of violence and sadness.
    Rabbi Maller’s web site is:

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