Though I hadn’t planned it, yesterday’s visit to “A Blessing to One Another – Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People” made a fitting observance for the September 11 anniversary. This exhibition depicts the lifelong influence on the late pope of his growing up years among Jewish people in Poland, especially his close friendship with classmate Jerzy Kluger. Through photos, artifacts and video interviews, visitors are led through Karol Wojtlya’s (known by the childhood nickname of “Lolek”) life in relation to 20th century Europe.
In a post card from the1930s, a skyline view of Wadowice, Poland, shows the cathedral spire and the synagogue dome rising above trees and buildings. For the time period, the town was uniquely accepting of its Jewish residents. Photographs show the Wojtyla’s apartment, near the church, and a sound track of church bells plays in the background to evoke the scene. Descriptions state simply that after the death of his mother when he was seven, Lolek was cared for by the landlady and other neighbor women. Elsewhere it was made clear that these people were Jewish.
In a video that continuously loops, Jerzy (nickname “Jurek”) shared the story of how one day he ran into the church to tell Lolek something important just as he was finishing serving at mass. A woman approached him and later Lolek asked about it. Jurek kind of laughed and said he’d replied, “I guess she wondered what a Jewish boy was doing in church.” The future pope then said, “Oh well, aren’t we all God’s children?”
After the war, in the wake of the Holocaust, the imprint of Wojtlya’s childhood relationships with Jewish people remained, although the Wadowice synagogue had been destroyed and no Jews lived there by 1944. Later panels of the exhibit document Pope John Paul II’s ground breaking initiatives to visit synagogues and his outreach to Israel, his affirming words about Judaism. Less well-known anecdotes from his years as a parish priest and a bishop also are included, such as his counsel to a Catholic family who sheltered a Jewish child during the war, that they should send him to his American relatives and let him be raised a Jew, when they wanted to have him baptized and raise him as their own.
Since viewing this exhibit when it first opened at Xavier in 2005, I’ve had a great deal more contact with Judaism. In our village, we have five synagogues with a sixth in the works. As a council member, trying to set up committee meetings in September or October, I learned a whole lot about the High Holy Days. Belonging to the Jewish Community Center down the road, built in 2008, I’ve learned even more about customs and holidays. Like the young Karol Wotyla, I now have Jewish friends of whom I am very fond. Liking them so much, I can have only respect for their tradition. It’s something real and personal.
The same has been true for my encounters with other groups subject to bigotry. After I became friends with gay people, I gained a different perspective on same-sex marriage. In the course of our son’s school project on Islamophobia, the Muslims we contacted for assistance warmly embraced his desire to learn and even presented us with a copy of the Qur’an as a sign of friendship. Such particular encounters make it harder to generalize about a group of people.
The exhibit about John Paul II draws its name from his 1993 appeal marking the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising:
“As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing to the world. This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to first be a blessing to one another.”
As members of the human race, following the terrible events of September 11, we are called to be a blessing to one another, whether Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc., etc. This is the common task awaiting us. Aren’t we all God’s children?
“A Blessing to One Another” has toured 17 other cities since 2005 and been seen by more than 800,000 people. In Cincinnati, it will be on display at the Skirball Museum at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion through Dec. 31 before going on tour in Europe.