Interviewed by Karin Lejeune-Le Méné and Aude Dugast, February 2004

Wanda Poltawska was born in 1921, in Poland. Deported to Ravensbruck at the age of 18, she was for more than four years in the “group for experimentation on women”, formed by the SS... then left for dead. During these 4 years she promised herself that if she had the good fortune to get out alive she would pledge herself to the cause of Life by becoming a doctor. Nowadays she is a psychiatrist. As an intimate friend of John-Paul II and of Jérôme Lejeune, she has undertaken for the first time, marking this 10th anniversary, to reveal something of “this communion, this union of souls” which she witnessed. In French, with traces of Polish and Italian, she modestly tells of this unusual friendship.

"I knew Karol Wojtyla before he was Pope : at Cracow, that was."

He had founded a theological institute for [studying] the family and we organized congresses. At the time, Poland was closed [to outsiders]. But people had told me about Professor Lejeune at Paris and we made use of his writings for our meetings.

In 1975 I was invited to a congress in France: it was a time when [the legalization of] abortion had been proposed only 5 years before. It was there that I met him for the first time. Everything he said appealed to me. He was the only scientist I knew who saw everything in the light of God Himself. Like the Holy Father… And he made his case by putting forward genetical arguments. You could know people in those days without really getting inside them [and knowing them properly]. The first time I saw Jérôme Lejeune I knew that he thought the same way as I do. We became friends straight away. I made the most of this friendship, having nothing to give, myself. I came from a country which [at the time] had nothing to give. I felt sure that he liked me straight away. It was a warm and deep friendship. Something which does not come often in a lifetime. I understood him ; and he understood me : no need for words….


I miss him all the time…

I loved his way of speaking, his humour, his way of making everything clear. He had a gift for persuading easily, with a simplicity which left no need for discussion afterwards. Everyone understood… He had personal charm. He was good looking, intelligent, and at the same time very humble. He was truthful, and genuine.

At Rome and at Paris I afterwards had the chance of meeting him. His way of putting himself at your disposal was unusual. He was ready to do whatever you asked him, without hesitation. When abortion was approved in the Polish Parliament, I rang him up. And he came the same day, from Munich, having leaped into an aeroplane for Warsaw.

I spent four and a half years in a Concentration camp at Ravensbruck, condemned to death.

I was arrested because I was in the scouts [in England : the Girl Guides]. We had organized opposition [resistance?]. Six SS men came to arrest me, young girl of 18 as I was.

Before the war I had been living with my family, knowing nothing of evil or of hatred. It was such a shock to come up against evil. I couldn’t understand why the Gestapo carried out all these arrests. They arrested 13 scouts [girl guides] and killed them all. But before dying they sang the Polish hymn « Tomorrow, I told myself, it’s my turn ». The conviction that I was going to die became creative [inspirational]. Money doesn’t interest me… The question is not, What do you possess…?, but Who are you?

At Ravensbrück, I was treated as a member of a group for experimentation, people condemned to death. 73 persons, aged about 20. Alongside another, of 14, I was the second youngest. For 4 years we became friends and I had the opportunity of learning German. My friends could not understand why they were suffering. They blamed God. I can say that I myself never asked “why”. I am a realist. That is how life is. That is all there is. There were 40 000 Polish women in the camp : and only 8000 of them came out of it alive. Of the 73 in our group only 18 of us are still alive. I was operated on in the first group of 6 women. And because we were in the first group we were more closely observed, and studied, and our dressings changed. But afterwards the other groups were less well cared for. It was summer: and their dressings were not changed. Perhaps I myself suffered less than the rest. 

I was given up for dead. The extraordinary thing is, I am still alive. I was thrown out as a corpse. I heard a woman touch me and say, “she is dead”. Hearing that, I thought “this doctor is stupid, she must know that I’m still alive” because I was, though I had no external sign of it and couldn’t affirm ity. Clinical death is not death…. It was now that I said I’d study medicine… In the hut there was just one window Later on I saw though the window a man cutting iron wire and saying “the girls are all yours”. [sens obscure à moi] A friend then saw that I was moving my finger tips. That saved me. If I had stayed there two or three more days I would have died. I now remember everything. 

I had the opportunity of observing the Gestapo and SS with children and pregnant wwomen. There was no abortion programme, so as not to delay the women’s labour. They just let the children be born, and then threw them in the fire straight away. I decided that if I came out alive I would do everything to save children. When millions of people can be killed, just like that, life itself loses its meaning. Even now, people don’t understand the value of a life.

One cannot compare a life with anything else.

It is a gift from God. Nowadays the greatest sin of all is the violence of the creature against his creator. If Jesus were to come back today He would say “They know not what they do”.

When I came out of Ravensbruck I couldn’t talk to anyone. They understood nothing. They did not have the same values. I could only speak to my friends from the camp. One has to understand that man lives so as to die, to be able to change, not to become attached.

I was 23 when I came out of Ravensbruck. I married some time afterwards. I was at Cracow University to study medicine. At the time, Karol Wojtyla was chaplain to the students there. He especially liked having to do with the medical students. My husband told him what I had been through. Karol Wojtyla then came specially to meet me. And so our friendship began. He also cared for my mother and my little sister. This friendship continued over the years with holidays, festivals, and prayer. We used to go to Mass every day at Cracow. When I became a psychiatrist I chose to specialize on the young. I worked in youth centres, with the young, the parents, and the teachers. We organized prayer groups for families in difficulty and couples in conflict, with Karol Wojtyla as their young chaplain [as spiritual director]. When he became a Bishop he organized groups for the theology of the family. Then I was director for 40 years of the Institute for the Family and there was a pontifical family council at Cracow. This originally Polish programme is now to be found in many other countries. I organized it with him. I am his disciple. I work with him all the time. He read everything that Jérôme wrote.

When he arrived at Rome he told me, « You must have an appartment at Warsaw and another at Rome…” Then he organized at Rome the Pontifical Council for the Family…. He created it the very day of the attempt on his life. “I payed for it with my blood”, he confided to me afterwards... He is very dear to my heart. That day I was in the South of Poland. My husband told me over the telephone. Before calling me he had already got my flight ticket for Rome. When I reached him, the Holy Father said “don’t cry. Our Lady protects me. She has kept me safe .”

I taught John Paul II’s catholic anthropology. The human person must develop constantly towards sanctity. To illustrate this I can give an example from documents at Cracow University. A group of doctors were condemned to death for crimes against humanity, because of euthanasia and experimentation on humans. Another group of doctors created a hospital within the Warsaw Ghetto and when the Ghetto was closed all the patients died of starvation. The doctors remained with their patients and died with them. The two groups of doctors had been colleagues before the war. They were students in the same university and attended the same classes. Then they chose which side they were on. So must you…

The Holy Father has a full heart for handicapped children, for all children… 

Everything he says and writes aims to preserve the sanctity of human love, the love of man and woman… Love is kind and it must be at the centre. To preserve love he wishes also to save children. The Holy Father wishes to save all mankind, he really does. My husband said to him one day, “you are more concerned for your enemies than for your friends”. And that is true. We have to understand that that we come from God and w are eternal.

From the time that Karol Wojtyla became Pope he spoke to me about Jérôme Lejeune.

The common factor between these two personalities is their poetry. Jérôme didn’t write poetry but he has a poetic soul. The Holy Father did, and he also has a poetic soul. In today’s world poetry means seeing further and higher.

The Holy Father said « one must open the eyes of the soul ».

They are both of them men of prayer. The Holy Father prays all the time, and Jérôme likewise. As a matter of course. It is a consolidating factor in their lives. You have the impression that a walk in the countryside is an act of communion by creation with God the Creator. Jérôme wanted to « cure » everything. When I saw his workshop at the bottom of his garden I expected to find it magnificently equipped with everything : but instead I just found a sort of cave with broken bits and pieces for mending dolls, and watering cans, and an old iron. For him, everything, no matter how useless, was an object of beauty.

The Holy Father and Jérôme loved the same things : the value of life, man’s grandeur, children. They had the same values.

I was having breakfast with the Holy Father when Mgr Stanislas brought is the news that Jérôme Lejeune had died. The Holy Father was very sad. It was a terrible shock for him. His reaction was full of meaning : for with a gesture he seemed to say, “But Good Lord, Why? I need him!...” God’s secrets: who can tell? After Jérôme’s death, when his daughter Anouk brought the Pope an object of devotion made for him by her father [it was a dizainier, for counting 10 “Hail Mary’s” of the rosary], he was very touched altogether.

Indeed we still need him, because he was someone who could help families in danger. His wish was that the Pontifical Academy for Life should become a network for the entire world and to educate doctors. The Holy Father always worked towards a programme for saving family life. The idea behind the Pontifical Academy for Life was very dear to the Pope: and he hoped that it would grow with Jérôme in Charge. In 1993 I had been discussing with the Holy Father and Cardinal Angelini the creation of it : and the Cardinal found the means required for starting it. He was a friend of Jérôme’s.

It was launched on 11th February, Our Lady of Lourdes, Feast of the sick and suffering.

When the Holy Father fell down, shot, Jérôme himself was also in hospital the same day. Jérôme and Birthe (his wife) had lunched with him that very day. They heard the news as their aeroplane landed at Paris. In hospital that evening, Jérôme was suffering at the same time as the Holy Father, and felt very close to him.

It was a unifying factor between them, something they shared. Together, they spoke of God all the time. The Holy Father never spoke about himself. To the questions put to him he would always reply by seeming to speak the thoughts of God. Jérôme also. The Holy Father is very susceptible to the beauty of creation. It was the same with Jérôme, he adored creation. The Holy Father contemplated this beauty in trees and flowers: Jérôme for his part in genetics. God created man in his image. We cannot understand nature without God. Nor can we understand man without God. Jérôme was somehow in union with heaven: he lived with God.

There are not many people in the world who are prepared to defend human life. . But there are enough for us to continue to hope. There are not many who are ready to dedicate their lives to [overcoming] this conflict of values. One does not often meet people like Jérôme Lejeune.

In the course of my life I have encountered some exceptional people. But he is truly a gift from the hand of God.