Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

Pope John Paul II and Auschwitz

Manfred Deselaers

Pope John Paul II and Auschwitz [1]



When Pope John Paul II was in Auschwitz in 1979, he said, "Can it still be a surprise to anyone that the Pope born and brought up in this land, the Pope who came to the See of Saint Peter from the diocese in whose territory is situated the camp of Auschwitz, should have begun his first Encyclical with the words "Redemptor Hominis" and should have dedicated it as a whole to the cause of man, to the dignity of man, to the threats to him, and finally to his inalienable rights … It is well known that I have been here many times. So many times! It was impossible for me not to come here as Pope.” [2]

The memory of Auschwitz, and all that is connected with this memory was very important for Pope John Paul II. In this article the central themes, the development and the versatility of his reflections will be presented. His speeches will be extensively quoted in order to faithfully give voice to the holy Shepherd.

Karol Wojtyla spent his childhood and youth (1920-1938) in the city of Wadowice about 35 kms from Auschwitz .  Jews also lived there, some of whom he was friendly with. His father was an army officer during World War I and fought for Polish independence.

The terrible experience of World War II changed his life. He decided during the war to become a priest and in 1942 entered the underground seminary in Krakow. In 1948 after the war, he defended his doctorate in Rome, "The Problem of Faith in St. John of the Cross”, a Faith that goes through the ‘Dark Night’.

From 1958, as bishop of the Archdiocese of Krakow he often visited the parishes of Oswiecim. His sermons strongly emphasized the need to pray for the dead, also to pray on behalf of those who cannot come to Oswiecim/Auschwitz.

Looking for signs of hope in the face of this tragedy of Auschwitz became occasions for deep reflection on man and his vocation, particularly, in the preparations for the beatification of Father Maximilian Kolbe in 1972. The cult of Maximilian Kolbe also became a bridge towards the German nation.

During his first visit to Poland as Pope in 1979 he visited Auschwitz: "I could not fail to come here as Pope!"

He stressed that on the path towards a world in which the dignity and rights of individuals and peoples are to be respected you have to fight, but fight like Kolbe, with the strength of faith to overcome evil with good. In the 1980's in Poland this was also understood within the context of communist oppression.

When atheistic Communism weakened, at the threshold of the Auschwitz camp a convent of Carmelite nuns was established in 1984. This sparked strong Jewish protest. From that time the Pope pointed increasingly to the suffering of Jews during World War II and the long common Christian- Jewish history on Polish soil. He also condemned anti-Semitism. In the spirit of Vatican Council II, he emphasized on numerous occasions the religious dignity of the Jewish people and their significance for Christians.

Edith Stein, also known as Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, became for him a symbol that combines solidarity with the tragedy of the Jews in Auschwitz-Birkenau together with a deep confession of the Christian faith. In 1999 he proclaimed Edith Stein one of the Patrons of Europe.

The next step was an  examination of conscience about the relationship of the Church to the Jews, sorrow for sin, and the promise of lasting brotherhood with the people of the covenant. In such a way the Pope wanted in the year 2000 to "cross the threshold of hope".[3]

Towards the end of his life in 2002, he entrusted the world to Divine Mercy, convinced that only God's mercy can heal the wounds of the world.

We do not deviate from the truth if we say that the whole ministry of Karol Wojtyla was marked by the tragedy of World War II and he sought an answer to it. John Paul II from the depths of his being was 'the Pope after Auschwitz'.


In the book "Gift and Mystery" John Paul II writes about his vocation to the priesthood:

"As a result of the outbreak of war I became  detached from  study and the university environment. I lost at that time  my father, the last man of my immediate family. [...] At the same time, more and more appeared in my mind the light: God wants that I become a priest. [...] all this happened against the background of the terrible events that unfolded around me in Krakow, Poland, in Europe and in the world. [...] I am thinking here particularly of those close to my heart, colleagues, also  those of Jewish descent  from  high school in Wadowice. [...] Well, in this great and terrible theatre of World War II many were spared. But every day I could be taken from the street, from the quarry or from the factory and transported to the camp. Sometimes I even asked myself, many of my peers were killed, why not me? Now I know that was not the case. [...] and reveals  another particularly important dimension of the history of my vocation. The years of World War II and the German occupation of the West and occupation from the Soviet East, entailed a large number of arrests and the exile of Polish priests to concentration camps. [...] Everything  said about the concentration camps, of course, is only part of the dramatic apocalypse of our century. And I say that, in order to emphasize that my priesthood is at this first stage, in keeping with the great sacrifice of the people of my generation, men and women. For me, the most difficult experiences have been spared by Providence, but because I have a greater sense of the debt in relation to so many people that I know, and even more numerous, these nameless, without distinction of nationality and language,  victims on the great altar of history, have contributed in some way to my vocation to the priesthood. In a sense, they introduced me to this path, in the light of the victims, appeared to me the truth - the deepest and most essential truth of the priesthood of Christ.[4]



From 4th July 1958 when Karol Wojtyla was appointed auxiliary bishop of Krakow, until his election as Pope on 16th October 1978, the area where Auschwitz is located was part of his pastoral responsibility. How was he to see the challenge of this soil ?

Cardinal Wojtyla believed that the first thing you should do is to pray for the dead. In 1970, on All Souls' Day he said in Oswiecim:

"What a vast crowd could be here in this place, if everyone wanted to come to the graves of their loved ones and light candles and lay wreaths and make a chorus of prayer!  There would be a huge crowd! Many languages; like the languages that are written at the monument of the memorial site at the crematoria in Birkenau. [...] We are here, dear brothers and sisters, representatives of the multitudes who should come to this place – multitudes of many languages. "[5]

This ground obliges those whom it was given by destiny to live here, to intercede and pray for the dead. All the more so it obligates us as Christians:

  "All this we bring to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. [...] We, the living Church on earth - we, the descendants of those dead and martyred - in the sacrifice of Christ we put our intercession, our advocacy, our most humble prayer; so that for the victims of this modern Calvary, He who on Calvary gave his life for all humankind, becomes their Savior and reward. To accept them all: in the many thousands and millions, multitudes, to accept them all in these apocalyptic dimensions. [...] Here it is [...] the substance of our common prayer, the content of our faith, the content of what we wish to express here: for ourselves and for our entire nation and for the whole of  humanity. "[6]

It was in this spirit, also in 1979, that the Pope said, "so I come and I kneel on this Golgotha of the modern world, on these tombs, largely nameless, like a great tomb of the Unknown Soldier."[7]

Maximilian Kolbe

During this time, in the early 1970's, preparations began for the beatification of Father Maximilian Kolbe. A year before the event, Cardinal Wojtyla said:

"It would be a great sign of heaven, as though the heavenly Father himself pointed his finger at this contemporary Calvary of the human family ... And as if he had said, that from this cross is born salvation." [8]

Later, on the anniversary of the beatification in 1972, the then Cardinal of Krakow said the following words during the Mass of thanksgiving in Auschwitz:

"We want to thank Christ the Lord for having given us this [...] Saint, who bore the most terrible burdens of our time, the humiliation of modern humanity, the defeat of his people. In this experience he did not break because the power of the Spirit, the power of faith and the power of love enabled him to gain the victory not only for himself but for us. So that we do not feel defeated, we, the Poles, we the priests; not only for us - for all of humanity, so as not to feel defeated by this cruelty, by this terrible death camp!"[9]

On October 20, 1971, two days after the beatification, Cardinal Wojtyla said on Vatican Radio:

"The beatification of Father Maximilian Kolbe turned again the eyes of the Church and the world to Auschwitz. In the consciousness of all the people of our time it firstly has become a symbol of torment begun by people of hatred, and in turn it becomes a symbol of love which is stronger than hate. And even the torment put on people becomes, thanks to love, somehow a creative strength that helps to more fully explore humanity. Such is the meaning bestowed on "Auschwitz" by Bl. Maximilian Maria Kolbe. "[10]

This remained  the fundamental perspective on Auschwitz for the later Pope. In Auschwitz during his first pilgrimage to Poland in 1979 he said:

 “In this site of the terrible slaughter that brought death to four million[11] people of different nations, Father Maximilian voluntarily offered himself for death in the starvation bunker for a brother,and so won a spiritual victory like that of Christ himself. […] But was Father Maximilian Kolbe the only one? Certainly he won a victory that was immediately felt by his companions in captivity and is still felt today by the Church and the world. […]We want to embrace with a feeling of deepest admiration each of these victories, each revelation of humanity which negated a system that was a systematic negation of humanity. Where humanity, the dignity of man was so horribly trampled on, a victory of humanity was won.”[12] 

On the occasion of the canonization in 1982, Pope John Paul II said:

"Yes, at the base of this holiness lies the great, but deeply painful question of humanity. This difficult, tragic era, marked by the terrible trampling of human dignity, yet in Auschwitz has born its saving sign. Love proved stronger than death, stronger than the anti-human system. Human love achieved its victory where hatred and contempt for human beings seemed to triumph. "[13]

Speaking of St Maximilian is not only about the hope of eternal life that comes from faith, but also about the image of the human being. It seems that here one can find the source of the Pope’s anthropology. In the face of Auschwitz, St Maximilian has shown the world the meaning of key words from the encyclical Redemptor Hominis:

 “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible  to himself, his life is senseless, if Love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter Love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. This, as has already been said, is why Christ the Redeemer "fully reveals man to himself." [14]

This light, which shines from Auschwitz to the whole world, deeply commits us. In 1972 Cardinal Wojtyla had said to university students:

"Conscience is what makes a person human. The full human development of man cannot be followed, or talked about, if his centre is not grasped, namely, conscience. Since it depends on it, [...] who in the end am I, I am one unique person. Take for example the picture: on the one hand, Father Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz, on the other hand, his executioners. Here is a man and here is a man. Here is conscience and here is conscience. And now, what  personality is ultimately shaped? On the one hand one which   conscience in the opinion of all mankind needs to affirm, glorify and accept, and take as its treasure forever. On the other hand, such a figure of man, of humanity, which in the opinion of all mankind - no matter whether they are believers or non-believers, Christians or atheists - must somehow reject: renounce. Although it may be renounced only to the borders of humanity, because: here is a man and here is a man. The greatness of man [...] is deeply connected to his conscience. "[15]

To live with a conscience means to conduct a constant struggle within oneself and continually choose between good and evil. During his second trip to Poland in 1983, shortly after the end of martial law, the Pope said to his fellow citizens: "What does it mean that love is stronger than death? It also means: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom 12, 21). These words explain the truth about the deed of Father Maximilian in Auschwitz  on different dimensions: the dimension of everyday life and also the dimension of the era, on the dimension of a difficult historical moment and on the dimension of the twentieth century, and perhaps on the times that are coming. [...] We want to enrich the Christian heritage of Poland by  acquiring the  meaning of his act in Auschwitz: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." This is the Gospel program. It is a difficult program - but possible. This program is indispensable. "[16]

The Human Rights of Peoples and Nations  

The lesson of Auschwitz, however, is not just about an individual sense of life and death. It applies no less to the shaping of our societies, nations, and international relations. In Auschwitz in 1979, Pope John Paul II said:

“If however Auschwitz’s great call and the cry of man tortured here is to bear fruit for Europe and for the world also, the Declaration of Human Rights must have all its just consequences drawn from it, [...] I would like to return to the wisdom of the old teacher Pawel Włodkowic, Rector of the Jagiellonian University at Krakow, who proclaimed, that the rights of nations must be ensured [...] Never one nation’s development at the other's expense, at the cost of the enslavement of the other, at the cost of conquest, outrage, exploitation and death. These are thoughts of John XXIII and Paul VI. But at the same time they are spoken by the son of a nation that in its  past and recent  history has suffered many afflictions from others. Permit me not to call the others by their name – permit me not to name them… When we stand here, we cannot escape the longing to recognize each other as brothers."[17]

John Paul II had long supported the efforts of Polish-German reconciliation. [18]

Cardinal Wojtyla met with German bishops during Vatican II in Rome (1962-1965). In 1964, members of the German section of Pax Christi as part of a penitential pilgrimage to Auschwitz met with Cardinal Wojtyla in Krakow. The Cardinal actively participated in the drafting of a letter from the Polish bishops to the bishops of the German Episcopate, sent in November 1965 with the famous words "We forgive and ask for forgiveness." The letter today is often regarded as a major breakthrough in post-war Polish-German relations.

In 1973 in Germany members of the Catholic lay organisation Pax Christi founded an association called Maximilian Kolbe-Werk to assist former prisoners of concentration camps. From the very beginning the Cardinal of Krakow was one of its supporters. In 1974 Cardinal Wojtyla visited the Federal Republic of Germany. Together with Cardinal Julius Döpfner from Cologne they celebrated Mass for the intentions of repentance and reconciliation in the Heilig-Kreuz-Carmelite Convent Dachau, on the threshold of the former concentration camp. In 1978 he did the same with a delegation of Polish bishops, among them Polish Primate Stefan Wyszynski and German bishops among whom was Cardinal Jozef Ratzinger, Archbishop of Munich, who later became Pope Benedict XVI.

In1979 Cardinal Ratzinger was present during the Mass celebrated by the new Pope John Paul II in Auschwitz-Birkenau. In1980 a delegation of German bishops together with Polish bishops, signed in front of the Death Wall in Auschwitz , a request to the Pope for the canonization of Bl. Maximilian Kolbe.

The canonization of Maximilian Kolbe in Rome in 1983, concelebrated with the German Cardinal Joseph Höffner in the presence of German pilgrims, became a prominent symbol of reconciliation.

On June 23, 1996, Pope John Paul II crossed through the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in a united Germany. "Now after crossing through the Brandenburg Gate, for me also, World War II is over" he said, deeply moved. [19]

It became clear that the Church through its contacts was able to build bridges and pave the road of reconciliation between nations.

One needs to understand all of this against the background of communist dictatorship. The Pope recalled that World War II began on September 1, 1939 with Nazi German aggression and on September 17 of the same year with the Soviet Red Army. In 1942, Germany began the war against the Soviet Union which killed millions of Russians and citizens of other nations. The War and occupation of Poland by Germany ended in 1945 thanks to the Red Army. However, the Soviet occupation of Poland lasted until 1989. In order to demonstrate the reasonableness of the Polish alliance with the Soviet Union, the Communist governments systematically portrayed the Federal Republic of Germany as the enemy, often using images from the time of the War. Following the publication of the Polish Episcopate letter to the bishops in Germany and the German response, an anti-Church campaign began at all levels across Poland under the slogan "Never forget, never forgive!", reproaching the Church as betraying the nation. This was just before the 600th anniversary of Polish Statehood May 1, 1966. May 3, 1966 in Czestochowa the 600th anniversary of the Baptism of Poland was celebrated. The Polish Primate Stefan Wyszynski solemnly repeated the words of forgiveness to Germany and many thousands of faithful said "We forgive." The Church's position became clear.[20]

In 1979, stopping in front of the plaques placed at the monument in Auschwitz-Birkenau, John Paul II said: "I still have another chosen plaque: in the Russian language. I do not add any comment. We know the people of whom it speaks; we know what share this people had in the horrible war for the liberty of the peoples; this plaque, too, must not be passed by indifferently."[21]

The memory of Auschwitz, which was liberated by the Red Army, plays a significant role in the memory of Russians about the contribution of the Soviet Union in the struggle for the liberation of Europe from Fascism. During communist times in Poland there was only one official interpretation of Auschwitz which emphasized the role of the liberation army and the communist and socialist activists among the victims. Since the prevailing ideology was atheistic materialism, Christian worship and religious symbols were forbidden in the former camp.

The largest Catholic youth movement in Poland under communism was "Oasis". It was founded after the war by Fr. Blachnicki Francis. He was a former Auschwitz prisoner who while waiting for a judgment of execution experienced a conversion. Surprisingly, no judgment was made. From then on, he was convinced that true freedom is inner freedom and those who are rooted in prayer and trust in Christ need fear neither authorities nor death. This may be called Polish liberation theology. In later times, people in the Oasis Movement played a large role in the bloodless revolution of Solidarity.

In his apostolic letter on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, John Paul II wrote: "To you, the politicians and statesmen, I would like once again to express my deep conviction that the worship of God always goes hand in hand with respect for man. Both of these attitudes make up the highest principle, which allows states and political blocs to overcome mutual contradictions. "[22]

With the weakening of Communism in the 1980's, ideas that had been repressed began to assert themselves. Against the background of human contempt implemented by neo-pagan Nazi totalitarianism and the atheistic materialism of Communism, it seemed to be important that on the threshold of the huge cemetery of the former Auschwitz camp a place of prayer would be created. Before the second pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to Poland in 1983 the authorities allowed for the construction of churches. Cardinal Franciszek Macharski of the Archdiocese of Krakow wished to establish a monastery of Carmelite nuns to pray for the victims and for peace.[23] The monastery was established in an old building adjacent to the wall of the former Auschwitz 1 camp, near the death cell of St. Maximilian.


[1] First published in Polish: Manfred Deselaers, Jan Paweł II i Auschwitz. In: "Oblicza dialogu", praca zbiorowa, podsumowaniem I edycji projektu na rzecz dialogu międzyreligijnego i międzykulturowego. Wyd. Instytutu Dialogu Międzykulturowego im. Jana Pawła II w Krakowie, 2014. Translated into English by Sr. Mary O'Sullivan.

[2] John Paul II, Homily at the former concentration camp Auschwitz - Birkenau, 07.06.1979. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/homilies/1979/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19790607_polonia-brzezinka_en.html [accessed 2014-08-22].

[3] John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Random House, New York, 1994.

[4] John Paul II, Dar i Tajemnica. Kraków 1996, pp. 34-39. Own translation.

[5] Karol Wojtyła / Jan Paweł II, Patron naszych trudnych czasów. Wypowiedzi o św. Maksymilianie. Wyd. Ojców Franciszkanów, Niepokalanów 1991, s. 20. [Patron of our difficult times. Statements about St. Maximilian] Ed. Franciscan Fathers, Niepokalanów 1991, p. 20.] Own translation.

[6] Ibid, p. 21. Own translation.

[7] John Paul II, Homily at the former concentration camp Auschwitz - Birkenau, 07.06.1979. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/homilies/1979/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19790607_polonia-brzezinka_en.html [accessed 2014-08-27].

[8] Patron naszych trudnych czasów, p 21. Own translation.

[9] Ibid, p. 91. Own translation.

[10] Ibid, p. 48. Own translation.

[11] In 1979 the number of 4 Million victims was written on the memorial in Birkenau. After the end of Communism the number was corrected according to international research to “about one and a half million”.

[12]  John Paul II, Homily at the former concentration camp Auschwitz - Birkenau, 07.06.1979. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/homilies/1979/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19790607_polonia-brzezinka_en.html [accessed 2014-08-28].

[13] John Paul II, Address during a special audience with all compatriots who came to canonization. Rome, 11 October 1982. In:  Patron naszych trudnych czasów, pp. 206-207. Own translation.

[14] John Paul II, Encyclical REDEMPTOR hominis Nr. 10, quoting the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Const. Pastoral. on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, No. 22.  http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_04031979_redemptor-hominis_en.html [accessed 2014-08-28].

[15] Patron naszych trudnych czasów, p. 66. Own translation.

[16] Homily of the Holy Father John Paul II in Niepokalanów 18-06-1983.  http://www.nauczaniejp2.pl/dokumenty/wyswietl/id/558 [Accessed 2014-07-10]   Own translation.

[17] John Paul II, Homily at the former concentration camp Auschwitz - Birkenau, 07.06.1979. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/homilies/1979/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19790607_polonia-brzezinka_en.html  [accessed 2014-09-10].

[18] See, for example Bernhard Vogel, Polen und Deutsche. Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Polen: Warsaw 2007. Especially: Vom Papst aus Polen aus Deutschland zum Papst. Die Versöhnung zwischen Deutschland und Polen und die Vision Europas in der Perspektive von Johannes Paul II. und Benedikt XVI., pp. 31-42, and Der Heilige Maximilian Kolbe - Schutzpatron der Versöhnung, pp. 43-50.

[19] „Jetzt, nachdem ich durch das Brandenburger Tor gegangen bin, ist auch für mich der 2. Weltkrieg zu Ende!” Ibid, p. 31. Own translation.

[20] Ibid, p. 35. Own translation.

[21] John Paul II, Homily at the former concentration camp Auschwitz - Birkenau, 07.06.1979. 1979 http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/homilies/1979/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19790607_polonia-brzezinka_en.html [accessed 2014-09-10].

[22] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. Rome, 27 August 1989. http://chomikuj.pl/NNnetka/religia/Jan+Pawe*c5*82+II-+adhortacje*2c+listy/LIST+50+rocznica+II+wojny,33507165.doc [accessed 2014-07-08].  Own translation.

[23] Słowo Metropolity Krakowskiego do Duchowienstwa i Wiernych Archidiecezji Krakowskiej [Words from the Metropolitan See of Krakow to the clergy and faithful of the Archdiocese of Krakow] 22.10.1984. In: Auschwitz. Konflikty i Dialog. Pod red. Ks. M. Głowni i St. Wilkanowicza. Krakow 1998, s. 175. Own translation.


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