Warsaw — A Holocaust survivor and member of the wartime resistance, Polish-born Samuel Willenberg says he was particularly affected by the death nine years ago of the Polish-born pope, John Paul II.
The pope, who was canonized Sunday in a Vatican ceremony — along with John XXIII, who served as leader of the world’s Roman Catholics from 1958 to 1963 — made historic improvements in relations between Jews and Catholics, Willenberg says.
A resident of Israel since 1950, Willenberg expressed his admiration for Pope John Paul II — now Saint John Paul — in the medium he knows best. He created a sculpture.
A prominent sculptor who has made many works that have Holocaust themes, Willenberg set to work on a sculpture that depicts John Paul II reaching out to a Torah scroll and a set of the Ten Commandments, shortly after the pope died in 2005. It represents, Willenberg says, the pope’s affection for Judaism.
“He created a great feeling of [ecumenical] sympathy and respect,” the sculptor says. “He worked to bring Catholicism closer to Judaism.”
Willenberg’s 2½-foot-high sculpture, first fashioned in clay, then overlaid with plaster of Paris, will be brought to Poland soon, where it will be bronzed and donated to St. Augustine Church in Warsaw.
A Haaretz headline on this week’s double canonization ceremony proclaimed “a historic victory for the Jewish people.” Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, declared, “If today Jews and Catholics live in a framework of fraternity, friendship and cooperation, following two millennia of tensions and confrontation, it is to a large extent due to the impulse Popes John XXIII and John Paul II gave to improving relations and to overcoming anti-Semitism in the church.”
John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, whose 1965 Nostra Aetate declaration absolved Jews in the death of Jesus; John Paul II further interfaith relations by establishing diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See, and visiting Rome’s main synagogue.
It was in this spirit, Willenberg says, that he started making the sculpture of John Paul II and decided to give it to St. Augustine Church.
That church, on Nowlipki Street in the capital’s Wola district, was located in the Nazi-established ghetto, the only Catholic house-of-worship in the then-heavily Jewish area. It was one of the few buildings to survive intact the 1943 destruction of the Ghetto.
Willenberg, 91, who was in Warsaw last week to attend the premiere of a documentary about his life, says he is donating the sculpture to the church as a sign of respect for John Paul II, and as a gesture of interfaith harmony.
“It is very symbolic,” he says. “I want to emphasize that a Jew created such a sculpture.”
The sculpture, says Mateusz Srodon, a Catholic artist in Warsaw who often deals with religious themes, says Willenberg’s work “breaks stereotypes” about Jewish-Catholic relations. “It connects Jewish and Catholic citizens.”
A native of Czestochowa, Willenberg enlisted in the Polish Army after Germany invaded his homeland in September 1939. He was interned at Treblinka, took part in the death camp’s 1943 prisoner revolt, later joined the Polish underground and participated in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.
Several members of his family died in the Shoah.
After making aliyah, he trained as an engineer surveyor and took up fulltime art upon retirement.
“He saw the worst that a human being could be, yet despite that experience he became a sculptor of beauty, not of horror,” Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich says of Willenberg’s John Paul II sculpture.
Once bronzed, the sculpture — believed to be the first such of a pope in Poland created by a Jewish sculptor — will be displayed in a church courtyard, visible from the street.
The artwork has the support of Warsaw’s Jewish and Catholic communities, both of which will take part in the dedication ceremony later this year, Rabbi Schudrich says.
The sculpture has been in Willenberg’s Tel Aviv studio since he began working on it nearly a decade ago. He will be glad to see it find a permanent home at St. Augustine Church, he says. “I want it to go where it belongs.”