Wanda Poltawska, John Paul’s Window into Women
This year, a new book that offers decades of correspondence between Pope John Paul II and one of his closest friends and collaborators, Wanda Poltawska, has revived interest in her wartime experience.
Diary of a Friendship, though available in Polish and Italian, has not yet been translated into English.
Last year’s John Paul II Film Festival in Miami included a Polish-language documentary that shed further light on her experience.
It’s a pity that English-speaking Catholics can’t learn about Wanda Poltawska.
In several important ways, her gripping tale of survival at the Nazis’ Ravensbrück concentration camp anticipates the Pope’s own method of spiritual warfare against the totalitarian lie imposed by the Soviet Union during the post-war era until the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
The courageous, nonviolent witness of Poles like Poltawska also shaped John Paul’s engagement with the “culture of death” in the democratic West. There, feminist ideology inspired women to embrace abortion as a “necessary evil” in the face of exploitation and discrimination. Poltawska’s story confirmed that women always have other choices.
There’s only one English-language work on Poltawska’s life. It’s her own memoir: And I Am Afraid of My Dreams, translated by Mary Craig and published by Hippocrene Books.
Written after the war to dispel the nightmares that disturbed her sleep, the memoir was published in 1964, after Wanda had become a wife, mother of four and distinguished psychiatrist who chose her profession in an effort to heal “spiritual wounds” she had experienced firsthand. The book is out of print now, but readers who can find a copy will be mesmerized by Poltawska’s unique voice.
Arrested at the age of 19 for her work in the Polish resistance, Poltawska was sent to Ravensbrück, where she would be selected as one of the “human guinea pigs” to be used for so-called scientific research by Nazi physicians.
From the start, the siren song of moral compromise as a tactic for survival tempted every prisoner. But after Poltawska and her best friend, Krysia, arrived, they vowed never to become like “brute beasts,” ready to do anything for a morsel of food.
“We were terrified by what we might become. And so aided perhaps by instinct we began, quite consciously, to erect defenses round our essential humanity, to protect ourselves against becoming brutalized,” she writes.
They sought to organize nighttime cultural activities that affirmed the prisoners’ common humanity, even as the guards brutalized them as “things.” And Poltawska never shared her peers’ very understandable hatred for their German captors. Face-to-face with the guards, she searched for some glimmer of humanity, some hint of their deeper emotions and thoughts.
Over time, though, the daily grind of the labor camp left the women starving and exhausted, and temptation to give in to despair returned. When Christmas arrived, they wept as they struggled to sing “Silent Night.” The horror of their new life slowly become more apparent: “[W]e were beginning to grasp the one sacred law of the camp — that any change would always, infallibly, be for the worse.”
One day, Poltawska was brought to the camp infirmary and joined a group of women who became the camp “guinea pigs” — they were injected with bacteria in their legs.
Worse than the physical pain caused by the infections and fevers was the spiritual crisis the experiments provoked in this sensitive woman: “I was searching desperately for the meaning of my present existence, for the meaning of what was now being done to me.”
Somehow, Poltawska and Krysia managed to survive these interminably long four years. When the prisoners were liberated by Allied troops, Krysia found her friend lying half dead next to the corpses of prisoners who didn’t make it to the end of the war.
But new horrors followed. The two friends joined a group of Polish women headed back to their hometowns that was assaulted by marauding Russian soldiers. After Poltawska managed to dodge the attention of one Russian, he blurted out a proposal of marriage.
“Well, you see, I don’t love you,” she responded.
Despite everything, she still believed in love.
After the war, Poltawska was drawn to Karol Wojtyla’s writings, and he sought her expert advice on pastoral issues. From the 1950s until his death, the two maintained regular correspondence. He served as her friend, confessor and spiritual guide.
Poltawska and her husband, a philosopher, provided input on such works as Love and Responsibility. She was at the Pope’s bedside after the attempt on his life — and during his final days.
She would write to him about her reflections and, when she visited him in his illnesses, would read books to him.
In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) and apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity of Women), Pope John Paul II insisted that even in situations of oppression women possessed the freedom to choose the good.
And if they allowed their victimization to absolve themselves of that moral responsibility, they would not fulfill their complete destiny as human persons.
Poltawska understood this well: After completing her training as a psychiatrist, her first patients included children who had spent their formative years at Auschwitz.
Later on, she would receive an extraordinary form of healing: After she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Cardinal Wojtyla wrote to Padre Pio, who by then was already gaining a reputation for the power of his prayers, asking for his intercession. The tumor disappeared, and that documented miracle was used as the basis for Padre Pio’s canonization.
In 1979, when Cardinal Wojtyla returned to his native land as Pope, he exhorted his countrymen to act “as if they were free.” Within a decade, the Berlin Wall had fallen without a shot being fired. During John Paul’s knife-edge duel with Moscow, one easily imagines that Poltawska’s story of transcendence helped to keep his hope alive.
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.