When Karol Wojtyla Refused to Baptize an Orphan

As a Young Priest, He Respected Identity of Jewish Child

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ROME, JAN. 18, 2005 (Zenit.org).- As a priest, Karol Wojtyla refused to baptize a Jewish child who had been entrusted to a Catholic family in Nazi-occupied Poland, out of respect for the youngster’s religious identity.

Shachne Berger was 2 years old in the fall of 1942, when his parents Moses and Helen Hiller, of Krakow, entrusted him to a Catholic couple with no children, who lived in the German section of the city of Dombrowa.

«They were called Yachowitch and were close friends of my parents,» Berger told the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera today.

When the Nazis invaded the Krakow ghetto on Oct. 28, the Hillers decided to act.

«On November 15, my mother succeeded in getting me out of the ghetto and handing me over to her Christian friends together with two large bags,» Berger said. «One contained all her valuable objects and the other, three letters.»

The first letter was addressed to the Yachowitches, to whom the child was being entrusted, asking them to educate him as a Jew and to return him to his people should his parents die, according to the newspaper.

The second letter was addressed to Shachne himself. It explained that it was profound love that made his father and mother place him with strangers to save him, and they revealed his origins, hoping that he would grow up proud of being Jewish.

The third contained the testament of Reizel Wurtzel, Helen’s mother, addressed to her sister-in-law, Jenny Berger, in Washington, D.C.

«Our grandson Shachne Hiller, born on the 18th of the month of Ab [the 11th month of the Jewish calendar], the 22nd of August of 1940, has been entrusted to courageous persons,» the third letter reads. «If none of us returns, I beg you to keep him with you, and that you educate him correctly. This is my last will.»

Before taking leave of the Yachowitches, Helen gave them the names and addresses of relatives — the Aarons and Bergers — who lived in Montreal and Washington.

«If we don’t return when this madness is over,» she requested her friend, «send them these letters.»

Shachne’s mother’s precautions became a reality: In March 1943, the Krakow ghetto was liquidated and the child’s parents were deported to Auschwitz, from where they never returned.

The boy, however, was not out of danger.

«From 1942 to 1945 we were always fleeing, from one house to another, and from one city to a new place,» Berger recalled. «Many hostile and anti-Semitic Poles were suspicious of my looks and thought I was a Jew, and if they had reported us, my adoptive parents would have risked death.»

By the time the war ended, the Yachowitches had grown fond of Shachne, and his «adoptive mother,» forgetting her promise to Helen Hiller, wanted to adopt the child officially. Wishing to baptize him, she approached a young priest of her parish and told him the story of the boy, his identity, and what happened to his parents.

The priest asked Mrs. Yachowitch what had been the wish of the child’s parents when they entrusted him to her. When she revealed the content of the will, the priest, Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, refused to baptize Shachne.

Shachne then left for North America, where his maternal relatives received him. Legal issues made his living with the Bergers difficult. On Dec. 19, 1950, after Jenny Berger’s efforts, U.S. President Harry Truman signed a special decree that entrusted Shachne Hiller to the Bergers.

Jenny Berger recalled: «More than eight years had passed since my grandmother wrote the will in the Krakow ghetto. At last, her wish was realized.»

In October 1978 Mrs. Yachowitch, with whom Shachne — now a practicing Jew, married, and father of twins — had kept in touch by letter, told him the last details of his story.

«For the first time,» he said, «she revealed that she had tried to baptize me and educate me as a Catholic, but that she had been stopped by a young priest, future cardinal of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, recently elected Pope.»

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