Interview with Doctor Wanda Półtawska, friend of Blessed John Paul II.
What did the school girls of Lublin High School dream about way back in 1939? Maybe all that girls of their age dream about: happiness, evenings at the cinema or at the theater, balls, love, trips with their friends. Yet the folly of Nazism stole all dreams of happiness from them, turning their lives into a nightmare which lasted five years.
When the German army attacked Poland on September 11, starting the Second World War, Wanda Wojtasik – this was Wanda Półtawska’s maiden name – was 17 and attended the high school of the Ursuline nuns in Lublin, southeast Poland. She was in charge of a scout group at the time; small wonder that this brave young girl decided to join the clandestine organization of Polish resistance called the Association for Armed Struggle. Unfortunately, in February 1941, she was found out, arrested and detained in the terrible prison of Lublin for many months. Though beaten while being interrogated, she did not reveal her comrades’ names. In September, she was transferred to Ravensbrück concentration camp. Behind the gates of that concentration camp she stopped being a person, and became prisoner 7709.
Ravensbrück is a village on Lake Schwedt-See in the German region of Brandenburg. In this idyllic landscape the Nazis built one of their “death factories.” One hundred thirty thousand people from 27 countries were imprisoned there during the war. Amongst these there were 40,000 Polish women, out of whom 8,000 survived. Ill-fed and kept in the cold, these women were forced to work in brutal conditions, tortured and killed. They were shot or gassed and then cremated.
Wanda was not shot: she became a Kaninchen, German for rabbit. In Ravensbrück concentration camp this word evoked something frightening: a Kaninchen was a prisoner destined for the surgical experiments conducted by the medical staff of the nearby SS clinic directed by Dr. Gebhardt. Prisoners were employed to test experimental drugs for the treatment of the wounds received by soldiers fighting on the front line. The women imprisoned there were deliberately wounded, given fractures, then infected. Pieces of wood or cloth were introduced into some wounds to test the effectiveness of the new drugs. Other experiments were about the process of bone, muscle and nerve regeneration and the feasibility of bone transplants: some women suffered amputations, others were “only” wounded and suffered fractures. So Wanda, one of the 74 Polish women, became a human guinea pig. She was operated on in the legs and that experimental operation caused her excruciating pain: she was about to go insane. She contemplated throwing herself on the high tension barbed wire to put an end to it all.
The Kaninchen were to be eliminated, but the other inmates struggled to save them and the Nazis eventually decided to spare their lives.
The camp was liberated by Soviet soldiers on April 30, 1945 and Wanda reached Lublin by foot and short rides. But she could not stay in her hometown: every corner reminded her of friends and acquaintances who had died in the war. She decided to move to Krakow, but this change did not dispel the nightmares of her imprisonment. When somebody asked her who she was, sometimes she answered: “Number 7709.” Confronted with the tragedy of the Shoah, many Jews wondered where God was when they were dying; after the experience of the Nazi hell, Wanda asked herself: “Who is man?” A friend of hers advised her to write a book to work through her inner trauma: thus she wrote the memoir of her prison days entitled And I Am Afraid of My Dreams (published in Italian as E io ho paura dei miei sogni by Editrice San Paolo). Yet neither medical studies, nor philosophy, not even marriage and family life set her troubled mind at rest till she met a man, a priest who was able to understand her.
How did your intense spiritual relationship with Karol Wojtyła begin?
Wanda Półtawska: When I returned to Poland after years of imprisonment I was haunted by the question: “Who is man?” Neither my studies, nor my friends, nor my confessors, helped me. One day I went to St. Mary’s Basilica. I began to pray in front of the large crucifix as I used to do, when Father Wojtyła, whom I had known since the days of pastoral care for doctors, entered the church. He knelt down and went into the confessional. I followed him as though I had been driven by a special force. I confessed to him: I remember the great relief and sense of peace. I had finally found somebody who could really understand me. After I confessed he said to me: “Come to Mass tomorrow morning. Come every morning.” I soon realized that he was a saintly priest endowed with a rare aptitude for listening.
What did his pastoral method consist of ?
Półtawska: It was centered on biblical meditation. After celebrating Mass every morning he gave me a short passage to meditate on. During the day I meditated on that passage and wrote down my reflections. Father Wojtyła read my notes and wrote his comments. These documents became an important part of my latest book.
Your relationship with Karol Wojtyła was not just spiritual, but also, I dare say, professional.
Półtawska: That’s true. At the time I was a young psychiatrist working in the youth counseling center. Young people and couples in crisis came to me for help. I soon realized that I needed the help of a priest. Father Wojtyła was involved in this type of activity and so he became my collaborator.
You worked for the defense of life and the family. How did your concern about these issues originate?
Półtawska: During my prison days at Ravensbrück, I saw the Nazis cast newborn babies into the crematoriums. I swore that if I survived I would study medicine and be committed to the defense of life. In Communist Poland, abortion was legalized in 1956. I, as a doctor, and Karol Wojtyła, as a priest, were deeply disturbed by this. So we started to work together to oppose this law. It is then that we became involved in the defense of life, a commitment which lasted over 50 years. In 1967, Cardinal Wojtyła established in Krakow the Theological Institute for the Family, which I directed for 33 years.
John Paul II has gone down in history as the Pope of the theology of the body. When did he become interested in this issue?
Półtawska: He was always interested in anthropology. An aspect which interested him was the love between man and woman and the sanctity of the family. He cared a lot about the family because it is there that the human personality is or should be shaped. At the same time he realized that love within the family stems from the correct understanding of the physical aspect of the man-woman relationship. In Krakow I collaborated with him in the writing of Love and Responsibility. In 1979, when he was already Pope, he started a cycle of catecheses on human love in God’s plan, but he wrote the proofs here: he just divided the text into lessons. Also, it must be remembered that he made a major contribution to the preparation of Humanæ Vitæ.
As Pope, Wojtyła wrote to you on December 24, 1978: “You were my consultant in the preparation of Humanæ Vitæ. You have been my collaborator for more than 20 years; I want this to continue.” Therefore, Wojtyła’s contribution to the preparation of the encyclical is also your contribution. In his letter, the Pope asked you “to follow and report” to him “everything happening in this field.”
Półtawska: I continued to do what he had asked me to do.
Your pro-life commitment has gained you lots of enemies. You have become the bête noir of Polish feminists and in some circles they do not forgive you for comparing abortion to the Shoah…
Półtawska: How can certain feminists proclaim women’s freedom in Parliament while sentencing defenseless unborn babies to death? The number of abortions in the world is enormous, much higher than that of people killed in war.
Let us now talk of a particularly difficult moment for you: you found out you had cancer in 1962.
Półtawska: I felt unwell when Wojtyła was in Rome for Vatican Council II. My husband sent him a telegram to inform him that I was in the hospital and he, on the advice of Monsignor Andrzej Maria Deskur, turned to Padre Pio. In his letter to Padre Pio, he asked him to pray for a sick woman without mentioning my name. Needless to say, like all Poles, I didn’t know anything about this Capuchin: the Communist regime kept us apart from the Western world. When I recovered, I got to know about these letters (the second one was a letter of thanks) and shuddered to discover their content. Actually, my recovery made me rebellious instead of getting me down on my knees to thank God: I was frightened, not only of God’s power, but also of our depending on Him.
Did those in Krakow who knew Cardinal Wojtyła expect him to become Pope?
Półtawska: In Poland they knew that he had the right connections in the Vatican and that he was appreciated by many bishops. In addition, Paul VI had chosen him as the preacher of spiritual exercises for the Curia: that was important. 1978 was a special year for all of us: my family and I spent our holidays in the mountains with Karol Wojtyła. On August 6, while we were having breakfast, he said: “I never have dreams, but last night I dreamt of Paul VI beckoning me.” On the same day we heard the news of Paul VI’s death on the radio. Wojtyła stayed with us until August 8, when he left for Rome via Warsaw. He returned after the conclave which elected Cardinal Albino Luciani Pope. In September, we received the unexpected news that the newly-elected Pope had died.
When we met late in September he told us: “I hoped to have more time.” When we parted I asked him: “What name will you choose as Pope?” “Obviously John Paul II,” answered my husband instead of him. Cardinal Wojtyła, on the contrary, made no reply. He left Krakow on October 8. We next met him in Rome: he was already John Paul II. I would also like to say that many years before, my mother had prophesied that he would become Pope.
One of Karol Wojtyła’s distinctive features was his faithfulness to his friends. A few days after his election he found time to write a long letter (October 1978) which shows what your friendship meant to him: “You see that under these circumstances I think of you. I’ve been thinking of you for over 20 years, since Andrzej first said to me: ‘Duśka was imprisoned at Ravensbrück.’ I have become convinced that God gave and entrusted you to me, so that I might compensate for what you suffered there. And I thought that you had suffered on my behalf. God spared me that trial because you were there. One can say that this conviction was irrational, but it has always been and still is with me. The ‘sister’s’ awareness gradually developed from the conviction.” As a Pope, Karol Wojtyła remained faithful to all his old friends.
Półtawska: Real friendship lasts forever; therefore our friendship remained the same after his election as Pope.
You and your family were regular guests of the Pope.
Półtawska: I met him whenever I was in Rome, but most of all my family and I spent the summer holidays with him at Castel Gandolfo.
As is often the case under such circumstances, you were accused of influencing the Pope even in choices outside your professional field.
Półtawska: Well, with Karol Wojtyła I always spoke about God and the world’s problems. In other words, we always discussed theological and pastoral questions; there was no room for gossip. I took to Rome the books which we had read and discussed them together. Of course we also spoke of personal problems, of my children and my family. But Karol Wojtyła was interested in everybody, because he loved people and never spoke ill of anybody. He told me that as a boy he was struck by the sentence, “Do not judge and you will not be judged”; this sentence remained impressed in his mind as long as he lived.
Is it true that you read him some books?
Półtawska: I read books to him for more than 50 years. He was a man endowed with an extraordinary reading ability: he could read two books at the same time. One with his eyes, the other by listening to someone else read it. He loved Polish literature and poems. The last book which I read to John Paul II dealt with the economic situation of Poland between the two wars.
Monsignor Mokrzycki has written that you were beside John Paul II in his last days: those of illness and agony.
Półtawska: During the Pope’s last stay at Gemelli General Hospital, Cardinal Dziwisz made it easier for me to visit the Pope on a daily basis: every day he sent me a car to drive me to the hospital. Even during his last four days I could stay close to him. On Wednesday, March 30, I went to his apartment to read him a book. On Thursday, Cardinal Dziwisz called me to inform me that the Holy Father’s situation had grown worse. I went to his apartment and stayed there till the end, i.e., till the night of April 2.
Before the beatification cause of John Paul II you published a book featuring 40 letters from Karol Wojtyła (Journal of a Friendship: The Połtawski Family and Karol Wojtyła, published by San Paolo Cinisello Balsamo). This book raised animated reactions. Was it necessary to publish those private letters?
Półtawska: When I met the Pope in the presence of Archbishop Michalik on November 14, 1993, he told me to write my memoirs. I started, but there was pressure brought on me so he told me to let it go. Yet, before dying, he told me that I had to continue to bear witness.
Did John Paul II read the proofs of your book?
Półtawska: He read it all, except the last chapter.
What happened after John Paul II’s death?
Półtawska: After his death, I swore to complete my book before I died (who could have finished it after my death?). I eventually prepared the proofs and gave them to two Polish archbishops to read: the first was Archbishop Michalik, who told me to publish the book. Then I showed the proofs to my present confessor, who, seeing me doubtful, told me that I had no right to keep John Paul II’s letters to myself and that people must be given the opportunity to read them. At last I showed the text to the postulator in the beatification cause of John Paul II, Monsignor Oder: he read it all and told me that those letters revealed Karol Wojtyła rather than me. So the book was published. It is not the diary of my life, but of my soul. The book features my letters to my confessor and his replies. In this way I intended to reveal another aspect of John Paul II’s personality and spirituality.
You collaborated with Karol Wojtyła for more than 50 years; could you tell us what goals he set for himself as a priest, bishop and Pope, and if he attained these goals?
Półtawska: His pastoral priority was to bring man close to God through love of his neighbor. Man learns to love through marriage and in the family. John Paul II did his best to sanctify the family, to make people understand “the beauty of love” (that’s how he referred to love). This is an endless task. Therefore we cannot say that he attained his goals. Anyway, I hope that people will continue to study his teachings and put them into practice.
Many ask themselves why John Paul II attracted so many people, even those distant from the Catholic Church.
Półtawska: The answer is simple: he attracted people because he really loved everybody and people felt his love and reciprocated it.
(From L’Osservatore Romano – November 2-3, 2012).