The jewish "roots" of Karol Wojtyla - Gian Franco Svidercoschi
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Gian Franco Svidercoschi

It is the Pope, the first Pope after two thousand years, who entered in a Synagogue, in this way accomplishing an historic gesture of reparation and together with solidarity towards the «elder Brothers». It is the Pope who pronounced the strongest words, and in certain aspects, it should be said, definitive words, on the Holocaust, the extermination of the Jewish people, and on the growing forms of anti-Semitism, «sin against God and against man». The Pope, who sanctioned, even on the diplomatic level, the relationship which for a while had been developed between the Holy See and the State of Israel.

But, above all, it is the Pope who did the most for the "purification" of the Catholic teaching on Judaism and on the Jews. The Pope, who even recently denounced the recurring temptation to separate, actually, to put into opposition the New and the Old Testament. And instead, he recalled that Jesus became «an authentic son of Israel, profoundly rooted in the long history of its people». And therefore, the Christian, if he possesses a strong conviction of that, cannot any longer «accept that the Jews, in as much as they are Jews, are despised or worse, treated poorly».

But can all of this, and that to which John Paul II gave a decisive impulse for the process of rapprochement, and therefore for the reciprocal understanding, and for the collaboration between Catholics and Jews, that is, can all of this be explained just as an evolution following from the Second Vatican Council? It is like a step that is an obligation following the declaration of Nostra Aetate, which had canceled the accusation of the deicide, and repudiated the secular «teaching of contempt», and instead reminding and reproposing the «spiritual tie» which ineffaceably unites Christianity and Judaism.

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».

Karol Wojtla - who in that blizzard lost many Jewish friends - therefore directly knew, in the first person, up to what point hate could reach, the contempt of man, in the name of a crazy, homicidal ideology. He knew the abyss of injustice, of violence of the oppression of an entire people. And this can explain many things about a Pope who dedicated his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis, to the cause of man, to his dignity, to the threats against him, to his inalienable rights. A Pope who, during his first trip to Poland, in June of 1979, when he arrived at Auschwitz felt the need to publicly say: «I couldn't not come here!».

Only a Pope like him, the son of a nation which had also tragically experimented the barbarism of the war and of the Nazi extermination camps, and which actually was united in the martyrdom of the Jewish people, to those poor six million dead, only a Pope like him, speaking of the Holocaust, to the representatives of the Jewish Polish Community, in Warsaw, could have said that he had «a particular relationship with all of this», because together with them he had «lived everything, in a certain sense, on this land».

Only a Pope like him, in whose memory of history, in the cultural legacy of his Nation, found the inspiration to pronounce new words on Judaism, profoundly different words from those said for centuries by the Catholic Church, only a Pope like him could have been able to write in the following terms to the «beloved Jewish brothers» for the 50th anniversary of the insurrection of the Ghetto of Warsaw: «How can I not be close to you, to remember in prayer and in mediation such a painful anniversary? Be certain: you are not alone in carrying the punishment of this painful memory».

Therefore, no one wants to forget the history that has passed. But let not the weight of this history impede the development of dialogue, and especially, of facing and resolving, on a cultural level, but first on a religious level, the heaviest «contentions» which still remain. And that is, on the part of the Jews, the presumption, already very difficult to remove from the collective memory, that in some way it was Christianity that was at the origin of the many tragedies that they have undergone. And on the other side, the trauma of the Christian world, divided between the persecutions of not having had direct responsibility in the Holocaust and the dramatic admission, made by German Episcopate and now by that of the French, of not having been at the side of the Jewish people at the moment of their martyrdom.

And that is why - as John Paul II sustains - the moment has come for Jews and Christians to rediscover and bring to fruition their common spiritual patrimony. To be able to walk together. And to collaborate for the defense of the rights of man, for social justice and peace. And to thus be able to, day after day, experience what it is like to be brothers, members of one family. Witnessing, finally reconciled, the same hope in the wait for the «God who comes».