A Pilgrim’s Progress
Eric Herschthal – Editorial Intern
The letter Pope John Paul II placed in the Western Wall is part of a new exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.  Courtesy of the Museum of Jewish HeritageIn 1998, as Pope John Paul II began his preparation for the Catholic Church’s millennium jubilee, he showed no signs of gaiety. He called on all Catholics to begin a collective “examination of conscience,â€? in which they were prodded to re-examine the ways their ancestors had betrayed the words and deeds of Jesus Christ, with particular emphasis on their treatment of the Jews.

It was a novel way to begin a new year, let alone a new millennium. But for Jewish observers, it wasn’t such a surprise. Both before and after Karol Wojtyla was elected pope in 1978, he was committed to seeking forgiveness from the Jews for Christian misdeeds throughout history.

That, at least, is the unwavering thesis of the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s new exhibit, “A Blessing to One Another — Pope John Paul II & The Jewish People,â€? on display until Feb. 23, 2007. In a splashy spectacle that includes things sacred— a shawl worn by the pope in Jerusalem, the letter he placed in the Western Wall, the trademark white skullcap he wore — to things quotidian — a report from his elementary school in rural Poland, pictures of his lifelong Jewish friend Jerzy Kluger—the museum makes the case that John Paul II was the best pope the Jews ever had.

The exhibit begins in Wadowice, the religiously diverse town in Poland where Wojtyla, nicknamed Lolek, was born on May 18, 1920. Making a laudable effort to recreate the pre-World War II years of small-town Poland, where Wadowice’s 2,000 Jews lived hospitably among its 10,000 Christians, the exhibit offers up a spacious landscape, replete with images of shopkeepers, horse-and-buggy carriages and wells filled by the nearby River Skawa.

Next, we meet Jerzy Kluger, Lolek’s lifelong friend, and the son of a successful Jewish lawyer and wealthy mother born to a prominent family with Jewish German roots. Sepia-toned pictures of both Wojtyla’s and Kluger’s family face one another on connecting walls, reminding us of the intimate bond the families shared.

The relationship, however, seemed to stretch beyond the personal, inspiring in Wojtya philo-Semitic sentiments that drove him to such charitable acts as playing on Kluger’s Jewish soccer team and defending his friend against occasional anti-Semitic verbal assaults.

In this first part of the exhibit, the young Wojtyla comes through as a saint among simpletons. For example, one anecdote from his youth that is featured in the exhibit tells of Kluger running to Wojtyla’s church during Mass to tell his friend that both of them had passed the gymnazyum entrance exam. Observing an older Christian woman approach Kluger, Wojtyla later asked his Jewish friend what the woman had said to him. “Maybe she was surprised to see a Jew in church?â€? responded Kluger. Wojtyla laughed. “Why?â€? he asked. “Aren’t we all God’s children?â€?

But life in early 20th century Poland wasn’t devoid of tension. The country’s disastrous future under the Nazi occupation is foreshadowed throughout the early parts of the exhibit by piped in choral music that eerily suggests that even in a wondrously bucolic setting such as Wadowice, death may be around the corner. Quite literally: The town lies 20 miles southeast of Oswiecim, also known as Auschwitz.

As Poland, and the world, is thrust into World War II, visitors walk beneath a recreation of the Warsaw Ghetto, entering a section of the exhibition devoted to the horrors of the Holocaust. Here, rather than concentrate on what the pope to-be was doing, the exhibit shifts its gaze to what the Nazis had done—take over businesses and arrest, quarantine and eventually murder both Jews and dissenters alike.

But losing its main focus proves detrimental to the exhibit. Wojtyla, as recent research has shown, was far from silent during the war, participating as an amateur playwright in a student production group called Rhapsody Theater and challenging the Fascist ideology by composing veiled anti-German plays. Facts like these go unmentioned in “A Blessing to One Another.â€? They shouldn’t be.

Only when the war ends does Wojtyla truly emerge. The exhibit tells of his steady rise to the papacy: A section of wall text and photographs is dedicated to his term as Krakow bishop beginning in 1958; another showcases the red biretta he wore after his appointment as Poland’s cardinal in 1967; and the exhibit features prominent artifacts from Wojtyla’s papacy—a menorah given to him by Jews, a ceremonial lamp from Assisi, a bronze cast handprint.

Of his audacious plans to reframe Judeo-Christian relations, the exhibit could not offer more. Life-size pictures of the pope’s meeting the Roman Rabbi Elio Toaff are placed beside the skullcap he wore at his visit to the Western Wall. The exhibit’s crown jewel, the retrieved note he placed in the wall, on loan from the Yad Vashem museum in Israel, reads: “Asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.â€? The letter adds a bit of warmth, and authenticity, to this otherwise Disney-landish display of kitsch.

While retrieving great mementos like these, “A Blessing to One Anotherâ€? turns a blind eye to the controversy John Paul II often courted. Why, it has often been asked, did he praise the Nazi-era Pope Pius XII, who remained silent as Hitler preached the most virulent, and public, anti-Semitism the modern world has ever known? Why did he give the Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, who never denounced his involvement with the Nazis, an official Vatican invitation? Why did he meet with and embrace Yasir Arafat? And why did he push so hard for a convent in the ashes of Auschwitz? On these questions, the exhibit is silent.

For a man who made great strides to mend the divide that lay between Jews and the Catholic Church, the Museum of Jewish History could not have chosen a better subject. But the facts omitted suggest that though the discussion towards reconciliation has begun, it is far from over. n

“A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II & the Jewish Peopleâ€? is on view through Feb. 23, 2007, Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, 36 Battery Pl., Manhattan. For more information, call 646-437-4305 or visit www.mjhnyc.org.