Wanda Poltawska, 101, Who Forged a Friendship With a Future Pope, Dies

Wanda Poltawska, a Polish psychiatrist and author who after World War II sought spiritual help to cope with the horrors she had experienced in a Nazi concentration camp and became a lifelong friend of her counselor, a priest who would one day be Pope John Paul II, died on Oct. 24 at her home in Krakow. She was 101.

Her death was confirmed by her grandson Chris Dadak.

The pope’s friendship with Dr. Poltawska (pronounced pole-DUS-ka), a married Roman Catholic with four grown daughters, was largely unknown until 2009, four years after John Paul’s death, when she revealed details of it in a memoir.

They had exchanged letters and visits for almost a half-century, she wrote, starting in 1956 in Krakow, Poland, where she had begun a psychiatric practice and where the future pontiff was a dynamic young parish priest, the Rev. Karol Wojtyla.

It was a contact in a confessional that originally brought them together. There, Dr. Poltawska told Father Wojtyla of the burdens she had borne for years as a victim of gruesome medical experiments performed on her and other women in the concentration camp at Ravensbrück, Germany. Their exchange led to further consultations and, over time, a bond that would extend from Poland to the Vatican.

Her book “Memories of the Beskidy Hills” included pictures of her family on hiking, skiing and camping trips with Father Wojtyla in the mountains of southeastern Poland, long before his papacy began in 1978. Other photos showed the family with the pope at the Vatican and at Castel Gandolfo, his retreat outside Rome.

Written in Polish across 570 pages, the book offered reminiscences about old times together: prayers and campfire religious discussions, carols sung at Christmastime, First Communion celebrations for the girls, and regular visits to the Poltawska home in Krakow, where the children called him “Uncle Karol.”

The memoir quoted from letters that he addressed to “Dearest Dusia” and signed “Br,” for “Brat,” or “Brother.” In one, dated Oct. 20, 1978, a few days after his elevation to the papacy, he expressed delight that she and her family were coming to Rome for a private visit with him.

That letter offered endearing personal confidences. Referring to his election in a conclave of cardinals, he wrote, “I thank God that he gave me so much calm.”

“In all of this, I think of you,” wrote the pope, whose mother, father and brother had all died, leaving him without a close family. “I have always believed that you, in the concentration camp, suffered in part for me. It is on the basis of this belief that I have come to the idea that yours might be my family, and you a sister to me.”

Dr. Poltawska met the pope at the Vatican shortly thereafter, along with her husband, Andrezj Poltawski, a professor of philosophy, and their daughters. The family would apparently see him often during his 26-year papacy. She visited him at a hospital in Rome after he was shot by a would-be assassin in 1981, and she was one of a group of people who were allowed to visit his bedside in the hours before he died in 2005.

While nothing in her book suggested any closeness beyond a brother-sister relationship, some church officials reacted to its publication with hostility. Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which was considering canonization for John Paul II, accused Dr. Poltawska of withholding correspondence that could delay beatification.

Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow, John Paul’s former private secretary, accused Dr. Poltawska of exaggerating her relationship with the pope. He told the Italian newspaper La Stampa that John Paul had many old friends from Poland. “That was his secret: to make all those who were dear to him feel like they had a special relationship with him,” the cardinal was quoted as saying.

Dr. Poltawska was the author of books defending traditional family values and Catholic dogma opposing contraception, abortion and premarital sex, and she reiterated her support for these ideas in a 100th-birthday interview in Krakow with The National Catholic Register.

For years she had dismissed efforts to minimize her friendship with the pope, as well as speculation of a romantic relationship between them. “What is wrong in a priest’s friendship with a woman?” she once asked The Associated Press. “Isn’t a priest a human being?”

John Paul’s bond with Dr. Poltawska was affirmed in 1962 when, as a bishop in Rome for the Second Vatican Council, he received a note from her husband saying she had learned that she had intestinal cancer and had been given 18 months to live. He asked a stigmatic friar, Padre Pio da Pietrelcina, to seek divine intervention. Days later, her doctors discovered that the tumor had inexplicably disappeared, the Vatican said.

In 2002, John Paul canonized Padre Pio, citing Dr. Poltawska’s abrupt recovery as one of two requisite miracles for sainthood.

Wanda Wiktoria Wojtasik was born on Nov. 2, 1921, in Lublin, Poland, the daughter of Adam and Anna (Chaber) Wojtasik. Her father was a postal clerk, and her mother was a homemaker. She attended the School of Ursuline Sisters in Lublin and became a Girl Guide, learning outdoor scouting skills like camping and citizenship duties to God, country and family.

She was almost 18 when Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, and World War II began in Europe. Schools were closed, and regimented youth organizations, including Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, were outlawed by Nazi occupiers. Many older youths were executed as potential resistance leaders.

Wanda joined the underground resistance, carrying medical supplies and messages. Caught by the Gestapo in February 1941, she was beaten, tortured and imprisoned for months at Lublin Castle, then transported by railway to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in northern Germany.

It was a camp for women and children who supplied slave labor for war production by the German manufacturer Siemens. Of 132,000 prisoners from across Europe who entered Ravensbrück during the war, only 15,000 were found alive when the camp was liberated by Russians in 1945. As many as 92,000 died of disease, starvation, exhaustion and summary executions, many in mass shootings. Others were sent to Auschwitz.

Some inmates were killed in hideous pseudo-medical experiments by Nazi doctors. Ms. Wojtasik was subjected to these in a morphine stupor, ostensibly to test sulfa drugs. While she was held down on a table, her lower legs were cut and infected with virulent bacteria.

“Our legs swelled up, scarlet and angry; mine was so swollen that the plaster cut into my flesh,” she recalled in a memoir. “Every time we tried to move our mutilated legs, an evil-smelling yellowish brown fluid would seep from under the plaster sheath. They no longer had to bend down to sniff our legs.”

As the war progressed and killings in the camp rose sharply, Ms. Wojtasik became a witness to processed mass murder.

“We did not weep when the death lists were delivered to the block and we learned the names of those who would be killed next day,” she wrote. “Roll calls, when they took people out of the line and executed them, cloaked us in a seamless silence at the heart of which was something far deeper than fear. There was no longer any fear when we faced the shadow of death.”

She promised herself that if she got out alive, she would become a doctor.

After the war, she returned to Lublin in despair. “Her faith in human beings was destroyed,” her daughter Anna Dadek told The National Catholic Register in 2014. “She had grown up believing in heroes and that every person was created in the image of God. But afterward she couldn’t find any peace.”

Tormented by nightmares, she wrote a memoir, not for publication but to exorcise the ghosts. (That book, “And I Am Afraid of My Dreams,” was published in 1961 and has been reissued in English.) The writing was therapeutic and eased her nightmares, but not the haunted memories.

She married Andrzej Poltawski in 1947. He died in 2020. She is survived by their daughters, Katarzyna, Anna, Maria and Barbara; in addition to Chris, seven more grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.

Dr. Poltawska earned her medical degree at Jagiellonian University in 1951 and later a degree in psychiatry. She specialized in treating juveniles and traumatized survivors of the concentration camp at Auschwitz. It was while she was working at a clinic at Jagiellonian University in 1956 that she met Karol Wojtyla.

Father Wojtyla was an assistant at St. Florian’s Church in Krakow when he first heard her confession in 1956. By her daughter Anna’s account, Dr. Poltawska felt for the first time that someone had understood her. The priest told her to come to Mass the next day. A consultation followed. He gave her scriptural passages for meditation and prayer.

Dr. Poltawska began attending daily Masses celebrated by the priest, followed by more consultations with him that explored her past and resurrected painful recollections of her concentration camp experiences.

A friendship blossomed as they discovered common interests and outlooks on religion and family life. She learned that he had been born in Wadowice, near Krakow, into a strict Catholic family. His mother, Emilia, died when he was 9. His father, Karol Wojtyla, was a retired Army sergeant with a small pension.

As she got to know her counselor, she introduced him to her family. There were dinners and get-togethers. Father Wojtyla had a rich baritone voice and liked to sing and play a guitar. He loved poetry, literature and drama, had appeared in amateur theatricals, and played goalkeeper on a school soccer team. Friends called him Karolek (Little Charles) or Lolek.

For Dr. Poltawska, his counseling yielded insights into her problems as well as gradual relief from the burdens she carried.

With newfound confidence, she returned to Ravensbrück at the invitation of the East German government on Sept. 12, 1959, joining scores of former inmates to dedicate a memorial to the living and the dead: a 12-foot statue of a woman carrying an emaciated camp victim in her arms.

“I didn’t want to come,” she said. But she was there.

Over the ensuing two decades, Karol Wojtyla, already the auxiliary bishop of Krakow, was named acting archbishop in 1962, archbishop in 1964, a cardinal in 1967 and the pope in 1978. In 2014, he was elevated to sainthood.

By then, Dr. Poltawska had written 18 books, taught psychiatry at the Medical University of Krakow for decades and for 33 years managed the Institute of Family Theology at the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Krakow. In 2016, President, Andrzej Duda of Poland bestowed on her the Order of the White Eagle, the nation’s highest honor.

Alex Traub contributed reporting.