Typically for Israel, the awakening was personal and emotionalrather than theological.
The climax came Thursday with the pope's unprecedented meeting withthe chief rabbis of Israel and his visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaustmemorial.
A sign of the changing attitude toward the pope was the chief rabbis' unexpected proposal that the pope establish a permanent dialogue among the three religions--Judaism, Christianity and Islam--that trace their origins to the Patriarch Abraham.
"It came out in the meeting. We proposed that there be a permanent dialogue between all three religions. It is very important," Sephardic Chief Rabbi Bakshi-Doron told Religion News Service.
The proposal is particularly meaningful because Orthodox Jews--as are the chief rabbis--are typically very cautious about engaging in interfaith dialogue, and often shun such encounters outright.
The attitudinal change has been fueled by the testimonies of moreand more Polish-born Israeli Jews, who had known "Lolek" Wojtyla as aboy in Wadowice or whose lives were touched--even saved--by him inthe dark and chaotic days of the Holocaust and its aftermath.
"He saved my life. There are no other words for it. Thanks to him Iam here," said Edit Sirev, who remembered how the young, good-lookingpriest came to her aid as she sought to make her way to Krakow, Poland,in 1945, after being released from a German Army forced labor camp.
"He carried me on his back, gave me the first cup of tea and apiece of bread. And then I fled when we reached the monastery," sherecalled in tears after shaking hands with John Paul again Thursday atYad Vashem.
"He took care of me, and I couldn't understand why since no oneelse had. No one else helped me; he was the only one. He saved me;there is no other way to say it. Thanks to him I am here,'' Sirev said.
Now living in Haifa and a grandmother of five, Sirev said she alsovisited the pope in the Vatican two years ago to thank him for savingher life.
"He was glad I was here, and was happy to see me," she said. "Itold him that in Jewish tradition, a man who has saved one life isregarded like someone who had saved the whole world. I am just sorry tosee that the man who was then young and good-looking is today old andvery ill, the poor man."
Hanna Abrudsky remembered how the young priest told her to hide fromthe Nazis with the nuns of the order of St. Ursula, who sheltered Jewishchildren in a school in Krakow during the war years.
"He was a friend of the order and also a member of the Polishunderground," she said. "He told me, `Stay with us.' He saved me. Imet him 40 years later when he invited me to the Vatican, the same younggirl who was protected so long ago."
Others at the Yad Vashem ceremony who came from Wadowice recalledKarol Wojtyla as a studious young boy but a good singer and well likedby the girls. He lived in an apartment rented from Jews, and his friendsincluded many Jews.
The young Wojtyla was the goalie on a soccer team made up of hisJewish friends, but to Yosef Bienenstock's mind he was a better scholarthan he was a goalie.
In newspaper interviews before the Yad Vashem ceremony, Bienenstockdescribed Wojtyla as a "good and quiet kid" and confessed that thefuture pope had let him copy his homework.
When Bienenstock, who now lives in the seaside town of Netanya,returned to Poland to disinter the bones of his younger brother Romek,who had survived the death camps but died soon after returning home, hefound that Wojtyla had not forgotten his old friends.
On the grave was a marble monument to Romek, put there by Wojtyla.
Wojtyla was brought up by his widowed father, a retired armyofficer, in a town of 6,000 people, one-third of them Jews. His class inelementary school was one-quarter Jewish.
In his conversations with Jews, the pope has sometimes waxednostalgic about his memories of seeing the Sabbath candles lit on Fridayevenings in local homes.
The pope's closest childhood friend was Jewish, Jurik (Jerzy)Kluger, who now lives in Rome. The two maintained their friendshipduring high school, although the pope continued on to Catholic school andKluger entered a yeshiva.
Separated by the war, they met again in Rome 40 years later when thepope invited Kluger to lunch in the Apostolic Palace. Kluger's bookabout the friendship, "Letter to a Jewish Friend," recently publishedin Hebrew, describes the many instances when the pope stood up to smallacts of anti-Semitism by others as a boy.
Kluger came to Jerusalem for the Yad Vashem ceremony. "We've beentalking about this for 15 years, that he would come to Jerusalem," hesaid.