Holocaust history from Pope John Paul II’s Polish hometown explored

By Maxine Dovere/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: Pope John Paul Square and the Cathedral of Wadowice. The town's Holocaust history is being revisited. Credit: Maxine Dovere.

WADOWICE, POLAND—When Karol Wojtyla left his hometown of Wadowice, Poland, in 1938 to pursue his studies at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland was an independent country with a vibrant culture and a population that included more than 3 million Jews.

In Wadowice, more than 40 percent of the residents were Jewish. But the Nazis annexed the town in 1939. Following the death of his father, Wojtyla entered seminary in 1941. Later in life he would return to Wadowice as a frequent visitor—including three times as the pope.

Wojtyla, who became known as Pope John Paul II, died in 2005. That year, some 430,000 visited his small hometown. In 2010, on the 90th anniversary of the late pope’s birth, Stanislaw Dziwisz, his personal secretary, and Wadowice Mayor Ewa Filipiak laid the cornerstone for a museum that incorporates John Paul II’s home at 7 Koscieina Street.

During the winter of 2012, JNS.org met with the grandchildren of those who knew John Paul II as a young student who loved to ski and kayak—and counted Jews among his childhood friends.

“John Paul taught us to love the place we come from as well as those closest to us,” Filipiak said. In the town square memorial, re-named in John Paul II’s honor in 2012, each Polish city and every foreign country the pope visited is marked with an engraved, embedded stone.

Click photo to download. Caption: Pope John Paul II's family home in Wadowice, Poland. Credit: Gaj777/Wikimedia Commons.

After decades of communist rule, Poland is rediscovering its rich history, creating museums and educational programs that expand knowledge of its past. Among these efforts is the School for Dialogue Among Nations, a study program dedicated to discovering the Jewish history of Wadowice and the surrounding area.    

The School for Dialogue is an intense, yearlong learning program through which students in Polish high schools learn about the Jewish history of their local regions. In Wadowice’s high school, JNS.org joined visiting members of the Polish-Jewish Forum for Dialogue Among Nations non-profit in a circle of students studying the Jewish history of their town—the pope’s town.

While observing the class, Marta Krolik, the county executive, called the experience “interesting and exciting.” Speaking through an interpreter, she told JNS.org, “We have a free Poland, and can speak about all we wish. Wadowice has nothing to be ashamed about. We are all for objective and absolute truth about history—even though the discourse is not always positive.” 

Halina, one of the participating students, lives in a town neighboring the former Auschwitz concentration camp, and attends the Wadowice regional high school. She said the School for Dialogue had changed attitudes about Jews not only among young people, but adults as well. “There’s still room for the society to fight stereotypes and negative emotions,” she said.

Visitors and students went on to tour the town according to its Jewish geography. They saw what before the German occupation had been a Jewish-owned shop, a synagogue, and a mikvah (ritual bath). They also saw the gates of the ghetto that was imposed on the town’s Jews after the Nazis’ conquest. The students had previously studied each component of the town’s history, and on the tour they were able to describe each landmark’s roots in addition to its contemporary use. 

Click photo to download. Caption: Pope John Paul II at the old Yankee Stadium, New York City, in October 1979. Credit: Thomas J. O'Halloran.

A short distance from the active town center is the now rarely used Jewish cemetery. The white-walled area is at the end of Tomicka Street, beyond the railroad tracks. The entry gate is only half open—one needs to bend down to avoid hitting the head.    

Among Polish-Jewish cemeteries, Wadowice’s is not very old. Established in 1882 by the local community, it was in active use from about 1894 through the 1940s. Under the German occupation, only members of the Chevra Kadisha (Jewish volunteers who tend to the deceased immediately after death) were allowed to leave the ghetto to bury the dead. A total of 566 Jews, both local residents and Jewish soldiers who fought in World War I, are buried in the hallowed ground. 

The Nazis confiscated the cemetery property and sold it to a German. Since it was private property, the cemetery survived with limited damage. After the Germans were defeated in World War II, the cemetery lay abandoned and overgrown for decades. In 1992, descendants of the Jews of Wadowice, led by David Jakubowicz, restored the graveyard. In the past several years, two local non-Jewish residents have undertaken care of the burial ground as their personal responsibility, acting independently and without compensation.

Ending their journey through history, members of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, together with the volunteer cemetery caretakers and the Polish students, gathered at a monument in Wadowice honoring those lost during World War II, reciting the mourner’s Kaddish prayer to remember the dead.

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Posted on April 7, 2013 and filed under Holocaust, Features, Christian.