VATICAN CITY – Pope John Paul II (search) made great strides in improving relations between Jews and Catholics during his 26-year reign in the Roman Catholic Church, and supporters say it was the little gestures that made him a friend of the Jews.
“He was a link … a bridge. When the Christian community was able to see that such a person as a cardinal was not ashamed of entering a synagogue, entering a cemetery, they started to look at that issue in a different manner. And we were very proud about it — proud that something such as this was happening to us,” said Tadeusz Jakubovicz, head of Krakow’s Jewish community.
While growing up in his native Poland, Karol Wojtyla always had Jewish friends in his neighborhood, despite the anti-Semitic wave that swept through his hometown just prior to World War II. Some say these friendships foreshadowed the strides he would make later as religious leader.
John Paul II was the first pope to visit a synagogue, which he did in Rome in 1986, in nearly 2,000 years — since the time of St. Peter. He was also the first to recognize Israel, normalizing the Vatican's relations with the country in 1993.
The pontiff also apologized for the sins of Catholics against the Jews. Before the 1960s, Catholic doctrine blamed Jews for the death of Jesus and viewed conversion to Catholicism as the only way to atone for this sin. The church reversed this preaching after 1960.
John Paul took this reconciliation a step further and referred to Jews as “older brothers.” During his 26-year papacy, he wrote more than any other pope about the spiritual bonds between Catholicism and Judaism.
John Paul II was also the first pope to visit a Nazi death camp. On one of his first pilgrimages as pontiff he returned to southwestern Poland to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp for European Jews.
The Polish pope was very aware that his homeland had the greatest pre-war Jewish population and the greatest number of death camps. The horrors of the Holocaust always weighed heavily upon him.
Holocaust survivor Edith Tziren, who now lives in Israel, says she owes her life to the late John Paul II. When he found her languishing outside a concentration camp, he gave her bread and then carried her two miles to a train station to join other departing survivors.
“I certainly would not be alive, if not for him,” Tziren said.
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