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In Memoriam

Pope John Paul II (1920–2005)

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With the passing of Pope John Paul II, the world has lost a moral leader fervently committed to fighting the prejudice and hatred that led to the Holocaust.

Karol Jozef Wojtyla was born and raised in the village of Wadowice, Poland, where one quarter of the population was Jewish. His own personal experience of Nazi oppression and the persecution of Jews, including the deaths of his childhood Jewish friends and their families in the concentration camps, strongly influenced his leadership in Jewish-Christian relations. As Pope John Paul II, he led his church to confront the most painful chapter in its history.

In 1965, as archbishop of Krakow and the youngest bishop to attend the Second Vatican Council, he signed Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), the revolutionary document that repudiated the charge of deicide against the Jews and acknowledged the validity of the Judaic faith. In 1979, in his first return to Poland as pope, he knelt before the memorial to Holocaust victims at Auschwitz, saying: “I couldn't not come here.” In 1986, he became the first pope to visit the Great Synagogue of Rome. Under his leadership, the Vatican established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1993. In 1998, the Vatican issued the document “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah.”

In 2000, Pope John Paul II acknowledged for the first time Catholic involvement in the persecution of the Jews, noting “the burden of guilt” that Christians bore “for the murder of the Jewish people.” He repeatedly condemned antisemitism as “sinful” and “opposed to the very spirit of Christianity.” That year, he made a historic trip to Jerusalem, where he honored the victims of the Holocaust with a visit to Yad Vashem and prayed at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. Like other devout visitors, he placed a prayer in a crevice in the Wall:

“God of our fathers, You chose Abraham and his descendants to bring Your name to the nations. We are saddened by the behavior of those who, in the course of history, have caused these children of Yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant.”

Pope John Paul II's life and his papacy were characterized by a deep sense of compassion and humanity and a profound commitment to human rights. The Museum honors the memory of this great friend of all humanity.