The Jewish Boy and the Future Pope
Catholics have been much criticized for the alleged inaction of many Catholic authorities to speak up for our Jewish brothers and sisters during the Second World War. Veteran correspondent Alan Gill recalls the wisdom and bravery of one Polish priest.
by Alan Gill
In November 1942, when the murder of Jews in the Cracow ghetto was at its height two Polish Jews, Helen and Moses Hiller, smuggled their small son into the care of a Polish Catholic couple, Mr and Mrs Joseph Yachowitz.
The child arrived with three envelopes from the distraught parents. One contained personal jewellery, another contained letters to relatives in Canada and the US, who were asked to take the boy if the Hillers should die. The third contained a letter to Mrs Yachowitz, a note to little Shachne, and their will.
The letter to Shachne explained how much they loved him, because of which they had given him up to another couple. They told him of his Jewishness, and that they hoped he would grow up to be proud of his heritage. The letter to the couple praised them for their actions, and pleaded: "If we should not survive this madness, raise our son as a Jew."
Sadly, the boy's parents did not survive the Holocaust. When the war ended, Mrs Yachowitz did not post the letters to the boy's relatives in Canada and the US. Instead, she waited a further year, then sought to have the boy baptised and formally raised as a Catholic. She went to the newly-ordained curate in her parish who had a reputation for being wise, compassionate and trustworthy.
She told him about the boy's identity, but not about the letter hand-delivered to her husband and herself.
The young priest listened intently, and asked: "What were the parents' wishes when they entrusted him to you?" Mrs Yachowitz blurted out the full story.
The priest told Mrs Yachowitz it would be unfair to baptise the child while there was still hope that the relatives of the child might take him. He declined to perform the ceremony.
Mrs Yachowitz mailed the letter to the relatives who immediately agreed to take him. Polish law at that time forbade Polish orphan children to leave the country. US and Canadian immigration laws concerning orphans were equally strict, and there was no visa for Shachne.
Newspapers in the English-speaking world heard of the case which became a cause celebre. In 1949, the Canadian Jewish Congress obtained permission from the Canadian Government to bring 1,210 orphans (including Shachne) to the country. The Polish Government granted a special exit visa.
Public interest in the case disappeared. Shachne, now Stanley Berger, became a prominent businessman and practising Jew. As an adult he remained in contact with Mr and Mrs Yachowitz, visiting them in Poland in their old age.
In October 1978, Stanley Berger received a letter from Mrs Yachowitz, who was near death. In it she revealed for the first time her bid to have him raised as a Catholic, and the reaction of the priest who had counselled her.
She disclosed the young priest's name - Karol Wojtyla, elected that month as Pope John Paul II.
This story was told to me some years ago by Holocaust scholar, and professional story teller, Yaffa Eliach. She believes that God, who works in mysterious ways, will have noted this action towards a single Jew.
And - perhaps - this explains how the priest from Cracow came to receive the highest office in Christendom.