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Exhibit Opens Honoring Pope John Paul II’s Efforts to Reconcile Jews and Catholics

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
September - October

An exhibit, “A Blessing To One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People,” opened its national tour in September at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.  

According to The Washington Times (Sept. 23, 2003); “The round white cap rests in a pool of light. A mirror below reflects initials inscribed in the lining: ‘JPII.’ This skullcap, worn by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Israel in March 2000, is part of a new exhibit ... The exhibit tells the story of a relationship between Karol Wojtyla and the Jewish people that began decades before that historic trip to Israel. The story begins in Wadowice, Poland, where the future pope attended school and played soccer with Jewish friends. One Jewish classmate, Jerzy Kluger, would become a lifelong friend.”  

A section of the exhibit is devoted to Karol Wojtyla’s life in Krakow, where he studied at Jagiellonian University until the school was shut down by invading Nazis in 1939. “To enter this section,” the Times reports, “visitors walk through a replica of the Krakow Ghetto Gate. As speakers buzz with the sound of warplanes and dropping bombs, visitors view artifacts lent by the Holocaust Museum at Auschwitz. The rumpled brown shoes of exterminated Jewish children sit near an empty canister of Zyklon-B, the chemical the Nazis used in Auschwitz gas chambers.”  

Other highlights of the exhibit include:  

• A “precise replica” of part of the Western Wall in Jerusalem and a copy of the prayer that the pope put in the Wall during his visit to Israel in 2000. Visitors will be able to place their own prayers in the wall.  

• A video by Jerzy Kluger, a Jewish boyhood friend. When Karol Wojtyla became pope, his first private audience was with Kluger.  

• Documentation of his actions regarding the Jewish people, including establishing diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel in 1993; expressing his “deep sorrow” about the suffering of the Jews in the Shoah; and, as a priest, refusing to baptize a Jewish boy who had been entrusted to a Catholic family by his Jewish parents during World War II — demanding instead that the boy be sent to Jewish relatives in America as his parents had wanted.  

In the hall leading to the exhibit is a display, “Standing Within Your Gates: Jewish and Catholic Imagery from the Hebrew Bible,” of sculptures of biblical scenes by two Washington area artists, Jewish sculptor Philip Ratner and his Catholic counterpart, Scott Sullivan.  

The director of the Cultural Center, the Rev. Monsignor William Kerr, called John Paul “a man who led a community into the embrace of another community. Our mission is to take the legacy he left us and extend it into the future. This exhibit is the first step in extending that legacy.” The exhibit will be in Washington until January 15 and then will go to New York and Boston before traveling around the world.  

Yaffa Eliach, president of the Shtetl Foundation in New York, conceived the exhibit two years ago as a visiting scholar at Xavier University in Cincinnati, according to Rabbi Adie Ingber, exhibit co-director and executive director of the Hillel Jewish Student Center in Cincinnati.  

Editorially, Washington Jewish Week (Sept. 15, 2005) declared: “... only by understanding where we have been will we be able to comprehend our current situation and chart our future wisely. In this case, only by knowing how poor relations have been between the Catholic church and Jews will we be able to appreciate how much John Paul II did to move Catholic-Jewish ties to a new level of mutual respect. But while recalling the past, we must never permit our memories to embitter us to the point where we miss the historic opportunity that the courageous pope presented to us. ... It is apparent that the pontiff approached the Jewish people with love and respect,softening many hearts and changing minds among the world’s Catholics. Now that a hand of friendship has been extended, we should warmly grasp it in return.”

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