As Krakow hosts this year’s World Youth Day, many local institutions, from museums to cinemas and more, are hosting events related to the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, and Pope John Paul II. Among the most unexpected of these may be an exhibit of photos of John Paul II at the Krakow Jewish Community Center. This moving tribute to the Polish pope illustrates the enormous role he played in bringing Catholics and Jews closer together, both in Poland and in the universal Church.
For many centuries, Poland was Paradisus Iudaeorum, or the “Jewish paradise.” In the Middle Ages, Jews were expelled across Europe, from Spain to Crimea. Elsewhere, they were locked up in ghettos. In Poland, by contrast, the Jews were given privileges. The Polish kings introduced harsh punishments for harming Jews, who enjoyed a large degree of autonomy. Yiddish-language courts were established, while Jewish religious and literary life flourished in Poland. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Hassidism, and klezmer music were all born there.
In the late 19th and 20th centuries, however, anti-Semitism grew in Poland. The country was invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939. The Germans rounded up Poland’s three million Jews and isolated them from the rest of the population in ghettos, and then sent them to concentration camps. Almost 90 percent of Polish Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Polish reactions to the Jewish tragedy varied; some Poles took the extreme, heroic risk of hiding Jews (Poland was the only country in Nazi-occupied Europe where aiding Jews was punishable by death), while others denounced, blackmailed, or, in some documented cases, killed them. Most non-Jewish Poles, however, were neither saviors of Jews nor traitors; they simply tried to survive the brutal Nazi-Soviet occupation, during which three million non-Jewish Poles also were killed.
In all, at least 300,000 Polish Jews survived the Holocaust. Most left the country after the war. Seeing that most of their relatives were dead, many felt that there was no Jewish future in Poland. The country was devastated by the war and came under the rule of an oppressive communist regime. Meanwhile, a wave of anti-Semitism swept across Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe. In Krakow, where about 6,000 Jews registered after the war, this took the form of a 1945 pogrom in which one Jew was killed and dozens were wounded.
Things became difficult for Poland’s Jews again in 1968, a year after the Six Days’ War, after which the Soviet bloc allied itself with Israel’s Arab antagonists. Poland’s communist leader Władysław Gomułka (whose wife was Jewish) accused the Jews of being a Zionist fifth column. Poles of Jewish origin were purged from the public administration and the army, and about 20-25,000 Polish Jews were forced to emigrate. Most of the rest went underground, like the Marranos in Spain after 1492, hiding their Jewish roots and often changing their names. By the 1980s, Krakow’s Jewish community numbered about 200, mostly elderly Holocaust survivors. It seemed that it was only a matter of time before Krakow’s—and Poland’s—Jews would die out.
Today, however, there is a remarkable revival of Jewish life in Poland. In the 1980s, the nation’s Jewish community numbered about 5,000; today, it is between 20,000-30,000. Most of these Polish Jews are young people who have discovered their parents’ and grandparents’ hidden Jewish ancestry and have embraced Judaism.
Nowhere is this revival more evident in the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Krakow. Established in 2008 thanks to a generous donation from Prince Charles of Wales, the center is run by Jonathan Ornstein, a New York native. The center organizes Hebrew classes and courses on Jewish religion and culture, and its weekly Shabbat dinner draws hundreds. It has 600 members, including about 75 Holocaust survivors.
During World Youth Day, the Krakow JCC is paying homage to John Paul II with an exhibition of photos by Jewish-American photographer Chuck Fishman, who in the 1970s and 1980s photographed John Paul’s pastoral visits to his homeland for Life, Time, and other major American publications. Fishman believes that the pope’s 1979 visit to Poland was among the most important events in recent history, and that without it Solidarity would not have formed and there would have been no collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.
St. John Paul II was the first pope to make an official visit to a synagogue. He explicitly called anti-Semitism a sin and called the Jews Christians’ “elder brothers in our faith.” John Paul established diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel. As a child in Wadowice, Poland, Karol Wojtyła had many Jewish friends, including Jerzy Kluger, who took him to synagogue for services. “For the Jewish community worldwide, John Paul II is a hero,” Ornstein explains. “Poland’s chief rabbi Michael Schudrich has repeatedly said that nobody did as much to fight anti-Semitism in over 2,000 years as the Polish pope, and I fully agree.”
Statistics from CBOS, Poland’s state polling agency, show that the proportion of Poles who have negative views of Jews has declined significantly, while the number holding positive views has risen. In 1993, 51 percent of Poles viewed Jews unfavorably, while just 15 percent had a positive opinion; by 2012, the proportion of pro-Semitic Poles had risen to 33 percent, while the proportion of Poles with negative opinions of Jews fell to 29 percent. Ornstein attributes this to the influence of Pope John Paul II.
“Often when I’m taking a taxi and I ask the driver to take me to the Jewish Community Center, he smiles and says, ‘Oh, our elder brothers in the faith,’” Ornstein notes. He claims that this is evident in the Jews’ relationship with the institutional Church in Poland. “The relationship between the Jewish community and the Polish Catholic Church isn’t neutral. It’s overwhelmingly positive,” he notes. Jonathan Ornstein and the Jewish Community Center are involved in numerous initiatives related to interreligious dialogue, including between Catholics and Jews. He says that the Catholic bishops always treat him with respect, as a friend and partner.
Throughout the centuries, relations between the Catholic Church and the Jews have often been difficult. Catholics often blamed Jews for killing Christ, while in 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council decreed that Jews must wear special clothing to distinguish them from the Gentiles. While the latter practice was not applied in Poland, in the 20th century the Polish Church was not immune to anti-Judaism. In the 1980s, Cardinal Józef Glemp, then the country’s primate, made controversial comments about Jews that many perceived as anti-Semitic.
Since the 1990s, however, Poland’s bishops have condemned anti-Semitism on many occasions. Each year, Poland’s bishops celebrate a Day of Judaism; alongside Italy, Poland is the only local Church that holds such an event. There are many interreligious initiatives. Jonathan Ornstein himself is part of one: the “Covenant” Club of Christians and Jews in Krakow, which meets the JCC.
In his view, the strong outreach of Pope John Paul II to the Jews not only led to a significant drop in anti-Semitic attitudes in Poland and the universal Church. According to Ornstein, the Jewish revival in Krakow and Poland can to a degree be attributed to the pontiff. Ornstein estimates that at least 3,000-5,000 people in the city have at least one Jewish grandparent. Each year, more and more of them discover this and have no qualms with embracing Judaism. This is to a degree thanks to the positive attitude towards Jews and Judaism that John Paul II fostered in his home country and elsewhere.
“The Jewish revival in Poland today is truly a miracle,” says Ornstein. Of the many miracles attributed to Pope St. John Paul II, this one is one of the least expected.
Chuck Fishman’s exhibit “John Paul II in Poland” will be on display at the Jewish Community Center in Krakow until August 25.