Remembering a Family Friend: Father Karol Wojtyla

Wanda Poltawska’s daughter recounts their special relationship with St. John Paul II.

Father Karol Wojtyla (c) at Catherine Poltawska’s first Communion on June 21, 1959. Her mother, Wanda, is on the far left, younger sister Ania is beside Father Wojtyła, and Andrzej Poltawski is at the right with his mother.
Father Karol Wojtyla (c) at Catherine Poltawska’s first Communion on June 21, 1959. Her mother, Wanda, is on the far left, younger sister Ania is beside Father Wojtyła, and Andrzej Poltawski is at the right with his mother. (photo: Poltawska family archives)

Editor’s note: This article has been updated since the story went to press in the print edition.

ROANOKE, Va. — At the time of his death in 2005, St. John Paul II had no close blood relatives, yet the vast crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square at the time of his funeral revealed that this spiritual father had touched the lives of countless people across the globe.

Ania Dadak was among the mourners at the funeral Mass conducted by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and she was to return to St. Peter’s Square for the canonization of the Church’s first Polish pope on April 27. While the faithful knew John Paul II as a spiritual shepherd who spoke out against a “culture of death” and advanced the liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet rule, Dadak knew him from her early childhood in Kraków as a cherished family friend who joined her parents to sing Christmas carols and ski in the mountains.

The deep spiritual bond between Father Karol Wojtyla and Ania’s mother, Wanda Poltawska, a psychiatrist and mother of four, was forged in the aftermath of the Second World War, and it endured until the pope’s death. In 2010, Wanda published their long correspondence in a book, Diary of a Friendship.

Wanda Poltawska was a Nazi concentration-camp survivor. And she was forced to participate in the infamous medical experiments conducted by physicians on inmates at the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women in northern Germany.

That harrowing wartime experience, recounted in a published memoir, And I Am Afraid of My Dreams, inflicted deep spiritual wounds that disturbed her sleep well after the camp was liberated by Allied troops. Back home after the war, an adviser suggested she make Father Wojtyla her spiritual director.

“When my mother came back from the concentration camp, her faith in human beings was destroyed,” Dadak told the Register, during a telephone interview from her home in Roanoke, Va.

“She had grown up believing in heroes and that every person was created in the image of God. But afterward, she couldn’t find any peace.”

Father Wojtyla heard her confession, and Wanda felt for the first time that someone finally understood. He told her to come the following day to Mass at his parish, and, afterward, he gave her a Scripture passage for further meditation and prayer.

From that day forward, Wanda would attend daily Mass celebrated by the priest and then receive his spiritual direction. And as their friendship blossomed, the priest and the psychiatrist discovered that they shared common interests.

Wanda offered her insights into human psychology and helped him understand the needs of women, providing input on such works as Love and Responsibility.

In a letter to Wanda shortly after his election as pope, John Paul shared his belief that ”God has given you to me with the task that I must balance all that you have suffered in that camp. And I thought that you suffered for me, too. God spared me that ordeal. Because you were there (...).”

After Father Wojtyla was made a bishop, they founded an institute that addressed pastoral issues related to marriage and the family.

“My mother wanted to do something to defend human life, and, as a psychiatrist, she started to see the problems that occurred in marriage and the family. She wanted to help people, and this young priest had the same goal,” said Dadak.

As Ania moved from childhood to adolescence, she was struck by Father Wojtyla’s distinctive way of life.

“He lived with prayer, work and with God. It sounds pompous, but it was like that,” she said, noting that he had few possessions.

“He was the only one I have ever met who really loved the sinner and condemned the sin. We are all supposed to do that, but none of us really succeeds.”

On one occasion, during Dadak’s rebellious teenage years, Father Wojtyla asked to speak with her after she got in trouble with her mother for staying out late at a party. She was still fuming when she arrived for their meeting, but was quickly disarmed by his response.

“He was always very loving. Because of his goodness and holiness, rather than any condemnation, you suddenly saw what you did was wrong,” she recalled.

Father Wojtyla stayed close to the Poltawskas after he became a a bishop and later was appointed the cardinal-archbishop of Kraków. When Wanda developed cancer, he wrote to Padre Pio to ask for his intercession. Wanda was cured, and that documented miracle was used in the case for the Italian saint’s canonization.

Looking back, Ania acknowledged that no one in her family circle was shocked when Cardinal Wojtyla was elected pope in 1978.

“If you believe the Holy Spirit is governing the Church, then you [understand how] this man, who was so humble and simple, would become pope,” she said.

Dadak recalled that Cardinal Wojtyla also was not surprised that the College of Cardinals chose him to succeed Pope John Paul I.

“Deep down, he knew he would be pope and was already prepared. He never wanted power, but he accepted his duty and saw that God wanted him to do it.”

After his election, Wanda Poltawska was appointed to the Pontifical Council for the Family and became a regular visitor at the Vatican. The family also gathered at Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence.

By then, Ania was married to Casimir Dadak, and the couple lived in the United States with their children. Their younger son, Christopher, was baptized by Pope John Paul II, and their older son, Wojtek, said Ania Dadak, was familiar with John Paul’s tendency to “pray for a long time in the chapel, no matter who was waiting for him or how important they were.”

“During one trip, I remember my son repeatedly checking on him,” she said, “and coming out each time to say, ‘He is still praying’ — and again, ‘He is still praying!’”

Toward the close of John Paul’s pontificate, the family witnessed firsthand his painful struggle with Parkinson’s disease. Ania noted, “There was pressure on him to stand down. He was contemplating that in his prayer, but he decided, ‘God will take me away if I can’t serve as pope anymore.’ He was always in prayer.”

Wanda was with the Holy Father during his final days, and Ania joined her mother at his funeral Mass. She had known this priest her whole life, and as she looked at the long lines of people waiting to pray before his earthly remains, Ania Dadak “felt so humble. It was such a privilege to be there in prayer. And in Poland, though people mourned his passing, it was a time of spiritual renewal.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register's senior editor.