The pope, the rabbi and a story from the past

JERUSALEM -- In Pope John Paul II's first Christmas sermon, he shared his dream of making a pilgrimage to Israel, Jordan and the painful patchwork of land in between.

Any papal trip is a big news story. But the best way to grasp the historic nature of this pope's journey into the spiritual minefield called the Holy Land is to see it as a global story built on generations of personal stories -- some beautiful, some horrific. It's like an ancient mosaic that includes many shattered pieces, but the image is still there for all to see.

Here is one of those stories. It's a story that even brought tears to the eyes of some journalists, when told by the chief rabbi of Israel.

"The pope and I, we have some memories that we share ... about the time of Holocaust in the city of Krakow," said Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, who was an 8-year-old orphan when liberated from the Buchenwald death camp. "The pope even knew my grandfather. ... He told me he remembers seeing him walking to the synagogue on Shabbat, surrounded by children."

It was these roots that reminded the chief rabbi of a story, one documented in historian Martin Gilbert's classic volume "Holocaust Journey."

In the winter of 1942, Jewish parents were forced to make agonizing choices as the Nazis swept through the ghettos of Poland. Moses and Helen Hiller rushed in secret -- carrying 2-year-old Shachne -- to the home of some family friends, a childless Catholic couple named Jachowicz. The mother begged them to take the boy and gave them the address of family members in Washington, D.C.

The Hillers were taken to a camp that was only 40 minutes away -- Auschwitz.

"Three years passed," said Rabbi Lau. "World War II ended and they did not come back. The boy was a very Catholic boy and, by the age of four, he knew by heart all of the prayers of the church on Sunday. He understood that he was a Catholic boy, the child of the Jachowiczes. Nobody knew any different."

Finally, they decided to have Shachne baptized. They went to the nearest church in the village of Wadowice, where a young priest was completing his training. But before the rite was performed, Mrs. Jachowicz confessed the details of the boy's past. They loved the child, she said. They wanted him to stay in their home and in their church.

Father Karol Wojtyla listened and then asked one question: What do you think the boy's parents would want you do?

This devout Catholic woman was honest, said Rabbi Lau. She said, "I don't have to imagine. I know. I will never forget. My friend, Helen Hiller, my neighbor, stood at the door, giving the last look on her baby, which was in my arms, and she said to me ... 'In case, God forbid, that we will not come back, please, do all the efforts to give Shachne back into Jewish arms.' "

The priest was gentle, but firm. He would not baptize the child. Father Wojtyla, of course, became a bishop, then an archbishop, a cardinal and, in 1978, Pope John Paul II.

During an historic meeting at the pope's mountain retreat, Castel Gandolfo, the chief rabbi said he had a chance to ask John Paul -- almost 50 years later -- if the story was true. Yes, this was one of several such cases, said the pope. Also, the pontiff knew that the boy made it to America, where he had, in fact, become an observant Jew.

A story of this kind does not answer all of the questions that loom over dialogues between Catholics and Jews, or erase centuries of misunderstandings and betrayals, said Rabbi Lau. But what it does is suggest why this pope has made so many efforts to reach out to Jews, which John Paul calls the "senior brothers" of a monotheistic family.

"What I believe is this," said the chief rabbi. "John Paul knows, in his very heart, through his own experiences, our sufferings in the darkest time of history. I understand that he understands us."