Wanda Półtawska, Friend of John Paul II: ‘So Many Problems Can Only Be Solved on One’s Knees’
In this exclusive interview on the occasion of her 100th birthday, the famous Ravensbrück survivor discusses her friendship with the Polish saint, World War II, the excesses of science and the need for new generations of saints.
Editor's Note: Wanda Półtawska, friend of Pope St. John Paul II, died at the age of 101 on Oct. 25, 2023. An interview that the esteemed Polish psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor gave to the Register's Solène Tadié in 2021 is below.
KRAKOW, Poland — Wanda Półtawska is one of the greatest living testimonies of the 20th century. She experienced firsthand the atrocities of Nazi and communist totalitarianisms and is the last survivor of the 74 Polish women who were transported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp during World War II and subjected to pseudo-medical experiments.
This unspeakable ordeal that she lived at the age of 20 for assisting the Polish resistance (and that she recounts in her book And I Am Afraid of My Dreams) turned her into an untiring defender of life and human dignity. It is a fight that she fought through her long career as a psychiatrist.
And as the personal friend of St. John Paul II — who gave her spiritual support during the difficult years following the war and who she influenced on questions related to the family and marital life — she has followed closely Church affairs of the recent decades. She has also been a prominent member of various Vatican dicasteries, in particular the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Pontifical Council for the Family.
Born under the name of Wanda Wojtasik on Nov. 2, 1921, in Lublin, Poland, she received her medical degree at the Jagiellonian University of Krakow in 1951 and her doctorate in psychiatry in 1964. A few years later, she took part in the establishment of the Institute of Theology of the Family at the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Krakow (which would later become the Pontifical University of John Paul II), an institute that she ran for more than 30 years. She also worked as a university lecturer in pastoral medicine at the John Paul II Institute of Rome.
On the occasion of her 100th birthday, the Register sat with her in her apartment in Krakow, seeking her perspective about the current state of the world. She also looked back at her fond memories of some of the greatest events of the 20th century and her friendship with the holy Polish Pope.
What are your memories of your childhood in Poland before the war broke out?
As a young girl until the age of 17, I lived in Lublin, a holy city, with holy people; abortion practically did not exist. I lived almost in paradise for 17 years. Everything changed with the war. I was in my last year in high school when the war broke out, and I couldn’t take the high-school graduation exam. I didn’t get a chance to get into college right away. I resumed my studies after Ravensbrück.
Poland had been in a defensive war against Germany for centuries. The history of my country has always been about defending Polish freedom against the Germans, a war that was lost during World War II. I must say that the Polish people reacted very well against the German invasion. They were heroes. They wanted to defend Poland, particularly through the ZWZ, which was later called Armia Krajowa. I had been a scout from my sixth birthday until the war. The slogan of the scouts was: “God, fatherland, honor.” These are words I had known my entire life.
Unfortunately, the tribulations of the Polish people did not stop with the defeat of Nazism.
The history of Poland in the 20th century was marked by a long war between Lucifer and St. Michael the Archangel, between good and evil. I think that World War II actually never ended, because immediately after having freed itself from the German Nazi regime, Poland was immediately conquered by the communist regime of the Soviet Union.
After the war ended, the UB [the secret service of the communist regime] was immediately created. As a former Ravensbrück prisoner, I could not vote in the election of the president. So many of my friends disappeared in prison. I was still a student when I returned from Ravensbrück, but my teachers, the adult women, were immediately arrested by the UB.
How did you decide to study medicine and become a healer of souls, becoming a psychiatrist?
When I came back from Ravensbrück, I knew that we had to train, educate the teachers and parents first, and then the children, because children do not know who they are. I thought psychiatry knew something about the human person. But now I don’t know anymore. I don’t consider myself a doctor of souls because I can’t touch your soul. But I am a doctor who knows that every patient has a soul — and this, so many of my colleagues don’t know. They treat the patient as a body to be healed, which is wrong, because we are not a body. We do have a body. The human person is always subject to the spirit. The human body is always subject to the spirit ... to the Holy Spirit, or the spirit of this world.
I used to be a physician who always had a lot of patients. I always had a long line of patients, because I always gave them something that no one gave them, something they didn’t learn at home or in school. They didn’t know where they came from or why they existed.
In fact, I didn’t want to be a doctor, but I was driven by the knowledge that you couldn’t kill anyone because it was against Catholic ethics. In this day, our societies no longer know true Catholic ethics. The communists have thrown away ethics, history. There are almost no ethics classes in schools anymore. As a medical student, I used to have a full year of ethics, which was then abolished because there was a lack of teachers. Today’s medical students are superficial; they don’t know anything about ethics.
You taught for many years at the university. Surely you had the opportunity to shape your students’ consciences over the years, transmitting solid ethical principles.
When I met the new students each year, I would tell them: “I don’t know anything about you. But I know something about all of you: You all have to die. And if you forget this, you are lost. I don’t know what you will do with your lives, but the one thing that is absolutely true today is that one day you will die.” It is the most important thought to keep in mind, but no one wants to think about it anymore today. Now, everyone is inordinately afraid of a virus. It doesn’t make sense, because you can’t prevent disease. No one can decide not to die.
Karol Wojtyła, when he was a priest, used to teach that one dies at the time that is right for him because God is good. If God knows, there is no need to deal with that. And now everyone is afraid of death. Why? Do you not know that you must die? One must prepare for death, not be afraid of it.
You published your memoirs after euthanasia began to be promoted in Western societies. Was this timing fortuitous, or was it the historical context that prompted you to talk about your unspeakable experience in Ravensbrück?
I was prompted by the fact that the Holy Father, John Paul II, wanted doctors to form a worldwide organization to influence public opinion. He wanted it so much, but it was never done, neither in Poland, nor in Italy, nor in the rest of Europe. In this materialistic world, if there are not enough people, nothing can be done.
If the Holy Father organized World Youth Day for the first time [in 1985], while no one had done it before him, it is because living in Krakow, he understood that the whole world was changing so much that people no longer knew how to live. People no longer had a sense of human dignity — the killing of children was accepted by all Western countries. He always fought against this, until his last breath.
Now, unfortunately, there are not many brave men in this world anymore. There is a lack of strong populations and new saints. There is a lack of wise male adults. We need strength, not so much physical strength, because men are now more obsessed with machines, but at least psychological strength.
Your observations are quite pessimistic.
John Paul II was optimistic. He believed that your generation would change this civilization that we called the civilization of death in favor of a civilization of life.
I am not as optimistic as he was because I am a psychiatrist, and I know the terrible things that men can do with science, worse things than animals. Men are more dangerous than animals.
We are not living in real totalitarian regimes in the West, but several intellectuals describe a kind of soft totalitarianism as being prevalent today. We are no longer sent to prison for our ideas, but one can lose one’s job, social life, status and reputation for this. What is your perception?
Actually, I would say that Western societies are being tested, now perhaps more than ever before in human history. I am very convinced that everything we are experiencing, including the health crisis, is a test for our civilization. Our reaction to what is happening is being tested; it is a sort of litmus test for our societies. But individual people won’t be able to make the difference; more powerful groups will have to be formed.
Conversion remains the key to all this, but now people no longer believe in the possibility to change. They do not believe, for example, in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. Priests, who are God’s chosen men, give all of us sinners a chance to enter heaven.
And now there are even bishops who do not believe in penance and reconciliation for sins. If they don’t also ask about sins committed 20 years ago, then they don’t believe in this sacrament of reconciliation. They are blind, as St. John Paul II would say. “Open your soul’s eyes to see something beyond the body,” he exhorted. This is the problem. So many men of the Church have become blind. They must open their soul’s eyes to see further — because, in fact, so many problems can only be solved on one’s knees.
So many people are said to have put their humanity aside during World War II, particularly the Nazis in concentration camps. How did you find the strength to continue fighting for human dignity after seeing the worst in human beings?
Many people say that, during the war, humanity got lost. But this is not the case. One can never stop being human. The encyclical Veritatis Splendor reminds us of this. One cannot pass from human to animal, even if one can live as such. In August, the wisest [contemporary] Polish priest, Archbishop Henryk Hoser, who was also a doctor, died. I am sure he is a saint. My husband [the late philosopher Andrzej Półtawski] said that he was the wisest person with whom he became acquainted during World War II. One day, in a homily to doctors for the feast of the sick in Poland, he said that now medicine would be forced to change to veterinary science because people no longer live like human beings but like animals. So many people no longer use their brains, their free will. Archbishop Hoser used to say that “consciousness must be formed well.”
A sense of responsibility is lacking, this is true. One can indeed fail to develop one’s humanity, but one cannot change oneself into a gorilla. For the specific case of the concentration camps, I can say that, contrary to what you may think, I saw more humane and heroic people there during my incarceration than in the rest of my life. I can also say that there are more stupid people among professors at universities than among simple country people. Science is not wisdom.
What would be your advice for people of faith struggling to defend values that are less and less shared in their societies nowadays?
Humanity must find wisdom again — not human wisdom, but divine wisdom. John Paul II wrote a phrase that sums up all his wisdom: persona humana in fieri est. It means that the human person is never complete nor automatically holy, but always has to change, every day. He taught that every day you have the obligation to change again, to be born a second time from the Spirit.
You have to choose, and, really, we all always have to make choices. Nowadays, so many people say things like “I wish you all good things.” Today people speak with these slogans, without wisdom. Nobody can have everything. I don’t want everything. I want one good thing for me.
So, what can we do? Learn! John Paul II used to exhort: “Study; learn!” We must learn to love, to believe. Today, too many people think they know everything, but they are devoid of wisdom. No wise person will ever claim to know everything because it is not possible.
You had a very deep friendship with St. John Paul II. How would you describe his contribution to the world and to Catholic theology?
When Father Wojtyła became archbishop of Krakow, he organized a Pontifical Institute for Theology and the Family, of which I was director and a teacher of his philosophy. It was a fundamental initiative. He taught that children are innocent but that adults are responsible and do not take responsibility for them. There is a lack of mature male adults who take action to protect human life. Why are you alive? God did not create you [in isolation] — that is not true. God does not want to create alone; he does it through a father and a mother, without whom no child exists. All these politicians who fight against life do not know that it is they who give life to their children. Where do these children killed by abortion come from? Did they perhaps fall from heaven?
What is your strongest memory of John Paul II in his last years of life?
Among my strongest memories of the last years of John Paul II’s life is that famous day when, while we were having lunch together, I was called on the phone by one of my students who said that we had lost in the Polish Parliament, which had given permission to kill sick babies [Dr. Półtawska is referring to a law voted by the Polish Parliament in 1993]. Healthy babies could not be killed, but the sick ones could be. The phone call came to me from Krakow: “Doctor, we’ve lost ...”
This is the first time I saw the Holy Father slam his fist on the table, exclaiming: “Where are the pediatricians? Why aren’t they defending sick children?” So we tried to find pediatricians, but this is mere political work. Back in Krakow, we tried to influence this government. Finally, now, we have won [Dr. Półtawska refers to the recent Polish Constitutional Court’s ruling that a law permitting abortion for fetal abnormalities was unconstitutional], but this story remains very sad because about half of the Polish politicians are in favor of killing sick children.
But you in the rest of the West, you also kill healthy children! Why this permission to kill? I repeat: if you remember that you have to die, you think about it here on this earth. If you don’t think about death, you live like a fool. The Holy Father used to tell me that stupidity is a grave sin because you have a brain, and you are forced to be a man, not an animal. So it is your fault if you make the wrong decisions.
On this very special date for you, do you have any specific message for the Register’s readers?
I was given the gift of God to be born in this age, not before, not after. But you, who in so many cases do not know how you were born, ask yourself first who you are, why you are, why you exist.
Find God’s plan for you.
You are not responsible for your country, for your continent, you are not. You are responsible for yourself. If you are not holy, you are to blame, no one else.
- catholic faith
- dignity of human life
- pope st. john paul ii
- john paul ii
- solene tadie
- dignity of the human person