I’m no public relations maven, but it seems to me that if I were in charge of PR for the Catholic Church I would take a dim view of one of the articles published this week on the Vatican’s Zenit website, in connection with the beatification of Pope John Paul II. It quotes a Father Deselaers as saying that “Auschwitz was the school of holiness of John Paul II, which was immediately perceived by the people, because here Wojtyła understood totally what ‘faith’ means for the man of today.” In fact, my strategy would be that the further under the rug we can sweep the whole history of Catholic-Jewish relations in Poland, especially the part played by John Paul II, the better.
Minorities tend to be treated worse in places where they are numerous than in places where they are scarce. In early 20th century America, for example, segregation was much more of an issue in the south, where there were lots of black people, than in the north, where there were not. Due to a variety of historical reasons, Poland wound up with the greatest concentration of Jews in early 20th century Europe – and the greatest level of popular anti-Semitism, fueled by the teaching of the Church.
This phenomenon expressed itself shortly after the end of World War I, when Poland returned to independent nationhood after over a century of partition status. To celebrate, Poles began butchering Jews all over the country. Eighty were killed in Vilna, 70 more in Lvov, and in the province where the future Pope was born, 500 were slaughtered. The killers were egged on by a letter from the Polish bishops: “The real goal of bolshevism is the conquest of the whole world. The race that directs it came to dominate it through their gold and their banks. Today the ancestral imperialist impulse that flows through its veins drives it to crush the people under the yoke of its domination.” Every Pole knew just which race the bishops were referring to.
Author David Kertzer explores in detail how Pope Benedict XV asked his man on the scene, Msgr. Achille Ratti, to report back to him on what was going on in Europe’s newest Catholic-dominated country. Ratti’s answer: nothing was going on at all. “The Jews there are incredibly numerous (approximately three hundred thousand!) and they could not be more detested. But they are not being bothered, much less persecuted.” This was despite the fact that:
One of the most evil and strongest influences that is felt here, perhaps the strongest and the most evil, is that of the Jews. Not only do they differ visibly from Poles owing to their racial characteristics (shortness of stature, large nose, prominent ears, bags under their eyes, etc.) … They differ also because of their religion and the strong consciousness and pretension they have of forming a separate nationality. … It is certain that the Jews constitute a major cause of weakness in the Polish state. Having the banks, the press, and many important offices in their hands, and backed by their international organization, they seek the formation of a Judaic Poland.
Two years later, Ratti was crowned Pope Pius XI, and spent his pontificate encouraging the spread of anti-Semitic dictatorships in places like Poland, Germany, Italy, Austria, and Spain.
In 1923, a frustrated Father Jozef Kruszynski wrote “If the world is to be rid of the Jewish scourge, it would be necessary to exterminate them, down to the last one.” Was he just an out of control wing nut? Maybe. If so, why was he two years later named head of the Catholic University of Lublin?
In 1936 Cardinal Hlond, Poland’s highest-ranking Catholic, encouraged a boycott of Jewish businesses and publications, warning that Jews were the “vanguard of atheism, the Bolshevik movement, and revolutionary activity. … It is a fact that the Jews deceive, levy interest, and are pimps. It is a fact that the religious and ethical influence of the Jewish young people on the Polish young people is a negative one.”
The following year the Synod of Polish Bishops adopted a resolution on public education calling for a prohibition on Jews teaching Catholic students, and on Jewish students being taught in the same classes as Catholic children. A Jesuit periodical explained that “It is necessary to provide separate schools for Jews, so that our children will not be infected by their lower morality.”
Meanwhile, the Jesuit editor of a Polish Catholic publication moaned that Poland had a Jewish problem that was “a hundred times more severe than anywhere else,” and urged expulsion of the Jews so that Poland could become “asemitic.” This echoed the official Polish Jesuit line that “Jews should be expelled from Christian societies.” Nor would Polish Catholics be satisfied by merely having Jews change their religion; a 1934 article in the Polish Catholic periodical Pro Christo pointed out that even after seven generations, the descendants of Jewish converts to Christianity in Poland continued to carry that distinctive Jewish smell. Therefore, he concluded that the power of Jewish blood was so great that “putting a stop to the penetration of Aryan blood by Jewish blood is useful, proper, understandable, and moral.”
After Hitler conquered Poland in 1939 and then launched his “Final Solution” in 1942, Jews from across western Europe were shipped to Auschwitz, in Poland, to be murdered there. Why? Suppose you’re an efficient Nazi bureaucrat, in charge of exterminating French, Dutch, and Czechoslovakian Jews. Is it cheaper and easier to kill them on the spot, or first to ship them hundreds of miles to Auschwitz and kill them there – especially in the middle of a war, when rail transport is critical? There had better be a darn good reason to give these Jews a European tour before gassing them – and there was. It’s impossible to carry out a huge extermination operation without the neighbors finding out – the smell will give you away, even if the packed trains rolling in and the empty trains rolling out don’t. If you do it in a relatively secularized location like France or Holland, you’re liable to raise an uproar. But if you do it in Poland, where the Church has laid the proper anti-Semitic groundwork, there’s much less chance of a problem.
Plenty of Poles, though, including Polish Catholics, did fight back. The Polish resistance forces featured some 20,000 guerrilla fighters; they provided false papers to more than 50,000 Jews and hid 3,000 Jewish children throughout the war. Even a Catholic like Father Maximilian Kolbe, author of over thirty viciously anti-Semitic articles during the 1930s, changed his stripes. When Kolbe became aware of the Nazi horror, he helped to conceal some 2,000 Jews in his friary, earning himself martyrdom at Nazi hands.
After Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II in 1978, the Vatican PR machine went into overdrive, trumpeting the important role Wojtyla played in this process. According to the Vatican website, “B’nai B’rith and other authorities have testified that he [Wojtyla] helped Jews find refuge from the Nazis,” an item cited today in John Paul’s Wikipedia entry. Jerzy Zubrzycki, a high school classmate of Wojtyla, was quoted in Time magazine in October 1978: “All around him Karol saw suffering and misery. Despite the fact that his life was in constant danger, he moved about the occupied areas taking Jewish families to safety and finding them new identities.”
Quite impressive – but for the fact that it’s all a giant lie. Author David Yallop did some very unsportsmanlike fact-checking, and discovered that B’nai B’rith had never testified that Wojtyla lifted a finger against the Nazis, and could find nothing at all about him in their extensive records. The Simon Wiesenthal Center had no record on him, either. Yallop then tracked down Jerzy Zubrzycki in Australia, who informed him that the Time interview had never taken place and the remarks attributed to him had never been made. Yallop then quotes filmmaker Marek Halter, himself a Polish Jew, who came to the Vatican to interview John Paul in 1985 for a documentary about gentiles who had helped Jews during the war:
Then I asked him the real question. ‘And you, Holy Father, did something for them?’ And then his face changed and he said, ‘I don’t believe I – no. No,’ he said.
That was the end of that interview.
While 400,000 Americans were losing the lives in the war against fascism, Wojtyla, who turned 22 in the year the “Final Solution” was decreed, devoted his spare time to polishing his acting skills in amateur theatricals. Not only did he refuse to participate in the struggle against the Nazis, but he actively persuaded others to abandon their own resistance.
Next week: How the holiness Wojtyla learned at Auschwitz shaped his clerical career.