Remembering Wanda Półtawska, a Model of the Feminine Genius in the Postmodern World
The life of John Paul II’s close friend, who influenced many of his writings and who died this month at almost 102 years old, is part of the long tradition of feminine heroism in the Church.
Summarizing the life and work of a figure such as Wanda Półtawska is no easy task. One thing is certain: The last survivor of the Ravensbrück concentration camp “guinea pigs” will remain one of the main faces of resistance to the dehumanization of the Western world, disfigured by the totalitarianisms of the 20th century.
Born Wanda Wiktoria Wojtasik on Nov. 2, 1921, in Lublin, Poland, she was the wife of philosopher Andrzej Półtawski and the mother of four. She died on the evening of Oct. 24, 2023, shortly before her 102nd birthday. “For many people, I’m something of a museum piece!” she had joked as she welcomed the Register to her apartment in Krakow’s famous Market Square on the occasion of her 100th birthday in 2021.
Known for her outspokenness, lively temperament and uncompromising character — no less was needed to survive the unspeakable atrocities she endured at just 20 years old for her resistance activities against the Nazi occupiers in Poland — she had a considerable impact on the intellectual life of the Church at the turn of the new millennium, not least on the writings of St. John Paul II, of whom she was one of the closest friends and whom he called his sister.
In the progressive intellectual world, generally inclined to celebrate the survivors of Nazi Germany’s genocidal fury, she always appeared to be a somewhat inconvenient figure, as she went against all the relativistic currents of thought prevalent in the second half of the 20th century.
Defending Life Against the ‘Civilization of Death’
The ordeal of her youth, which she recounted in her memorable work And I’m Afraid of My Dreams, had indeed turned her into a staunch defender of life, from conception to natural end. This was a difficult stance on sexual liberation to take in the West, which had made abortion and contraceptives the tools of individual empowerment.
Against the backdrop of the increasing spread of atheistic existentialist thought (which makes man the sole and ultimate source of his own values) and neo-Marxism in Western societies, Półtawska relied on science, and more specifically medicine, to counter the ideologies of the time, which she saw as anthropological errors of a dangerousness comparable to that of Nazi and communist totalitarianism — a sort of continuation of what she called the “civilization of death” by other means. She received her doctorate in psychiatry in 1964, after receiving her medical degree from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow in 1951.
“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,” she said in her 2021 interview with the Register, lamenting the disappearance of ethics from the medical curriculum in recent decades, which she believes has fueled the loss of awareness of the value of human life.
In the early years of her prolific career as a psychiatrist, she provided support to several child survivors of concentration camps. She also devoted numerous publications to juvenile psychiatry and the question of human nature, always driven by a Christian approach to the human person, whose body is always subject to the spirit. This awareness of the human soul was, in her view, nonexistent among most of her colleagues at the time. And this is where her unspeakable experience in the lager (concentration camp) between 1941 and 1945, those four and a half years in close contact with the darkness of pain and death, brought her deepest vocation to blossom.
“I observed the SS with pregnant women,” she recounted in a testimonial for the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation. “There were no scheduled abortions so as not to slow down the women’s work. They would let the children be born, and then throw them into the fire. ... I decided that, if I got out, I would do anything to save the children.”
This she did with passion, from the ’50s onwards, having as her main fighting partner Karol Wojtyła, a young Polish priest whom she met in a confessional in Krakow and who would become pope under the name of John Paul II in 1978. The half-century of friendship between these two souls has had a profound impact on the life of the Church. This fruitful friendship also challenged some of the tenets of modern feminism, which assumes that women are the Church’s eternal outcasts.
An Influential Woman Opposed to Modern Feminism
At the time of her liberation by the Red Army in 1945, Półtawska was one of the very few survivors of the group of 74 Polish women on whom Hitler’s doctors had carried out all kinds of experiments during the war. And she owed her survival only to the fact that a doctor, believing her to be dead, threw her onto a pile of corpses. She was later rescued by a friend who had seen her move a finger.
During her long journey through hell, what kept her alive was the deep solidarity that developed between her and the other women in the camp, as she recounted in her memoirs.
“Contrary to what you may think, I saw more humane and heroic people there during my incarceration than in the rest of my life,” she told the Register.
All this could have turned her into an icon of the post-war feminist cause. But she chose to embrace a quite different cause.
For her, championing women meant above all the defense of their intrinsic dignity, of which artificial contraception and sexual relations detached from their procreative purpose were the main enemies, since they subjugated women to men’s desires. She also devoted a considerable part of her work studying the impact of abortion on the female psyche. Her theories, which can be found in numerous writings, culminated in the “theology of the body” elaborated by John Paul II and which she significantly influenced.
Półtawska’s active collaboration in the writing of Wojtyła’s Love and Responsibility as early as 1960 is no secret either. She was also the one who, in 1967, 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 later became a lecturer at the Pontifical Lateran University and a prominent member of various Vatican dicasteries, in particular the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Pontifical Council for the Family.
It appears that she had a more or less direct link with most texts and initiatives relating to the family, sexuality and gender issues that saw the light of day during the Polish Pope’s pontificate.
“Dr. Wanda Półtawska had an enormous influence on the development of Karol Wojtyła’s views on artificial contraception, the rhythm method, abortion and other family, marriage, and Church issues,” Ted Lipien, author of Wojtyla’s Women: How They Shaped the Life of John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church, wrote on his blog in 2009. “One could not underestimate the importance of her role as a Polish woman who helped to define and reinforce many of Karol Wojtyla’s views on women.” He added: “[She] was also behind Pope John Paul II’s campaign to promote New Feminism, a Catholic version of feminism that defends traditional Church values relating to marriage, family, and gender roles while stressing equal dignity of men and women.”
In this respect, it is not unreasonable to think that the Polish Pope’s admiration for her was partly reflected in the formula of the “feminine genius” that he developed in his famous “Letter to Women” in 1995.
‘Like St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi’
It was the publication, in 2009, of part of their private correspondence, spanning a period of 50-plus years, that revealed to the public at large the depth of John Paul II and Półtawska’s intellectual and spiritual collaboration.
Made public by Półtawska in the context of the beatification process for John Paul II, who died in 2005, these letters also brought her out of the relative anonymity in which she had sought to remain throughout her friend’s pontificate.
These revelations were not to everyone’s taste, however, and even gave rise to some concern within the Church, with a few commentators extrapolating their significance, even going so far as to cast their relationship in an ambiguous light.
These insinuations were firmly challenged by Father Adam Boniecki, close collaborator of John Paul II in Krakow and Rome and former editor-in-chief of the Polish edition of L’Osservatore Romano, who compared the mystical bond between them to that between Sts. Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.
Legendary spiritual friendships throughout the history of the Church are legion. They range from Catherine of Siena and Raymond of Capua, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr to the Curé d’Ars and Catherine Lassagne.
Rather, it was to the fraternal relationship that existed between Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi that Wanda Półtawska identified her friendship with the Polish saint. Just as St. Clare illuminated and nourished the identity and path to holiness of the Poverello of Assisi, Półtawska, through the witness of her suffering, revealed to the young Wojtyła the profound meaning of his earthly vocation in following Christ.
“Ever since I found out of your ordeal in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, this thought has grown deep within me that God has given you to me with the task that I must balance in all that you suffered in that lager,” he wrote to his friend in 1978, four days after his election as pontiff. “And I thought that you also suffered for me. For me, God spared that trial. Because you were there. ... The grace of the Lord is stronger than our weakness. I can do all things in him who gives me strength.”
The Polish friends’ reliance on divine wisdom was part of Półtawska’s 2021 conversation with the Register.
As Półtawska observed, “Humanity must find wisdom again — not human wisdom, but divine wisdom. … So, what can we do? Learn! John Paul II used to exhort: ‘Study; learn!’ We must learn to love, to believe.”