Hebrew in the Vatican - Jewish Islander recalls historic meeting with Pope John Paul II

By Mary L. Grady

In April 1994, a half-century after World War II and the Holocaust, Islander Henry Friedman, a Polish Jew, found himself in the Vatican in Rome. He was seated near Pope John Paul II as they chanted the ancient Hebrew words of Kaddish, a prayer to commemorate the dead.

Friedman and his wife Sandra met the pope at a private audience, two of just 60 Jews invited to meet the pontiff as part of a historical commemoration and acknowledgment of the Holocaust. The church formally apologized to the Jewish people for not coming to their defense.

To Friedman, it was then and remains now, a miracle.

``Meeting the pope was beyond my wildest dreams,'' he said by telephone from California. ``I was astonished beyond belief.''

``You have to remember, I came from a country and a time when, as a Jew, I was persecuted by Christians and Catholics,'' he said.

``When we would leave school, other children would chant: `Jesus killers, Jesus killers. Just wait until Hitler comes, he will take care of you,''' he recalled.

Of the 15,000 people who lived in and around his village, only about 100 were left after the war, he said. He and one cousin were the only survivors from both sides of his large extended family. Both, ironically, were saved by Christian women who hid them during the war.

``Here I was punished for one thing only, that I was born a Jew,'' Friedman said..

``You cannot imagine the fear of Jews, of the Catholic Church,'' he explained.

``I had my reservations,'' he said after the shock of the invitation to Rome wore off. ``What is the purpose of this visit? I asked myself. So I call my rabbi, and he said, `Henry, you should go.'''

``If someone would have told me that I would be at the Vatican with the pope one day, that would have made it worthwhile to go on living -- to keep me going -- during that terrible time with Hitler.''

Even after more than 10 years, Friedman's memories of the meeting remain vivid.

``I was nervous,'' he admitted. ``Then here I am with this very holy man, and he is speaking directly to me. To be in the presence of him, so close to God. Yet he was so warm, so real. He showed such humanity.

``He knew my town,'' Friedman continued. It is not far from Krakow, the site of a notorious concentration camp and the town where Pope John Paul II was born.

``I spoke to him in Polish and he spoke to me in English,'' he laughed, explaining that the pope quickly realized his Polish was rusty after so many years here.

``I have met many important people,'' he said. ``I have met President Clinton and the Polish president, Lech Walesa -- but meeting the pope was greater than all of that. He said to me: `We are brothers.'

Meeting the pope made me proud to be a Jew,'' he said, adding that the visit strengthened his resolve to make sure no one ever forgets the Holocaust.

Friedman presented the pope with a video of several interviews of Holocaust survivors from Western Washington, called ``Never Again, I Hope.''

``The pope took the tape, looked at me and said, `Never again.'''

Friedman and his wife, longtime Islanders, established the Seattle Holocaust Memorial Education Center. Friedman has long worked to educate others about what had happened and wrote a book called ``I'm No Hero: Journeys of a Holocaust Survivor,'' in 2001.

``He did much to recognize the Jewish people and their suffering,'' Friedman said of the Pope John Paul, ticking off a list. ``He was the first pope to enter and pray in a synagogue, he prayed at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. He went to Auschwitz. He recognized Israel. He reached out to us and to other faiths.''

``The pope said that anti-Semitism is a sin,'' Friedman said, still surprised by it all.

``What if this man had been pope 50 years ago?'' he mused. ``Maybe six million people would not have died.''

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