(LifeSiteNews) — Unless you have a strong interest in Poland, you may not be familiar with Wanda Półtawska, a Polish psychiatrist, pro-life activist, close friend of Pope St. John Paul II, and survivor of the Ravensbrück concentration camp, who died on October 24, just days shy of her 102nd birthday and was buried today at the Salwator cemetery in Krakow. However, it is likely that future history books will describe her as a towering figure in twentieth-century Church history and an icon of the pro-life movement.
The pro-life vocation of a Ravensbrück ‘rabbit’
Wanda Półtawska was born on November 2, 1921, in Lublin, a pretty town of about 340,000 people in eastern Poland. Active in the Polish scouting movement, during World War II she joined the Grey Ranks, the legendary scouts who collaborated with the Polish resistance and engaged in brave acts of sabotage and diversion.
During the German occupation of Poland, millions of Poles were conscripted into forced labor for the Nazi occupier. As such work aided the German war effort, the Grey Ranks painted graffiti of turtles on walls across Poland, a commonly understood instruction to work slowly and inefficiently. As cinemas showed only Nazi propaganda and tickets sales helped finance the German Army, the Grey Ranks would graffiti the slogan Tylko świnie siedzą w kinie! (“Only pigs sit in the cinemas!” – it rhymes in Polish) and burst into screenings to disperse the audience with laughing gas. Perhaps the best-known feat of the Grey Ranks, however, occurred when one of its members removed a plaque from Copernicus’ statue in the heart of Warsaw installed by the occupiers and suggesting that the great astronomer was a German.
Półtawska’s role in the Grey Ranks mostly consisted of teaching in clandestine schools (under German occupation, the Poles were allowed only the most rudimentary education). In February 1941, Półtawska was apprehended by the Gestapo and deported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women, some 90 kilometers north of Berlin.
During the Second World War, Nazi Germany intended to murder every single Jewish and Roma man, woman, child, and elderly person. By the end of the war, about nine in ten Polish Jews had perished, mostly in the gas chambers of camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka. The uniqueness of this tragedy must not be forgotten or downplayed. However, the fate of non-Jewish Poles was also unenviable.
Historians estimate that between 1939 and 1945, between two and three million non-Jewish Poles were killed, mostly by German Nazis, but also at the hands of the Soviets as well as Ukrainian and Lithuanian nationalists. Berlin’s goal was to turn Poland into Lebensraum, or living room for the Aryan “master race.” In the process, the Poles were to be killed or turned into slaves. Non-Jewish Poles made up the biggest group of inmates at concentration camps like Ravensbrück, Stutthof, Dachau, or Sachsenhausen.
At Ravensbrück, Półtawska was a “rabbit,” meaning that she was subjected to sadistic medical experiments. Półtawska and other women inmates’ legs were sliced open; shards of glass, soil, chemical, and various metals were inserted into the resulting wounds and sewn shut. Such painful and disturbing experiences are recounted by Półtawska in her memoir And I Am Afraid of My Dreams, available in English.
Having experienced this barbarous disdain for human life, Półtawska chose the vocation of a physician and studied medicine at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow beginning in 1945. Her career choice paralleled that of another Polish hero of World War II, Marek Edelman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, who, after having witnessed so much wanton murder during the Holocaust, enrolled at the Medical University of Lodz, eventually becoming a leading cardiologist in Poland.
A providential friendship
It is unknown when exactly Wanda Półtawska met Father Karol Wojtyła, the future Pope John Paul II, but Tomasz Krzyżak, a leading Polish Catholic journalist and Półtawska’s biographer, writes that it may have been in 1953, when Półtawska received the sacrament of penance from him.
For the next five decades, until the very last days of St. John Paul II’s life, Półtawska and her husband Andrzej, a professor of philosophy like the future pope, as well as their four daughters, were close friends with Wojtyła. Wojtyła and the Półtawskis regularly went hiking in the mountains.
More important than their shared love for the outdoors, however, was the Półtawskis’ and Wojtyła’s common conviction that something had gone seriously wrong with the Western man’s understanding of human life and sexuality in the twentieth century. Wanda Półtawska was a major influence on Wojtyła in writing his Love and Responsibility, a treatise that in turn was eagerly read by Pope St. Paul VI when working on his prophetic 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae.
Many people, especially those who haven’t read either work, reduce Professor Wojtyła’s book and Pope Paul’s encyclical to the problem of contraception; frequently, I see Humane vitae described in secular literature as “the pill encyclical.”
In fact, Love and Responsibility is about treating each person with respect and dignity, including in the sexual sphere. If it is so obscurantist, then isn’t this to a large extent what the advocates of #MeToo are calling for as well? Combining old-fashioned Thomistic thinking with the modern philosophical school of phenomenology, Wojtyła takes a personalist stance, arguing that in sexuality, romantic love, and marriage, we must treat the other person as a subject, not as an object to fulfill one’s selfish needs.
During Wojtyła’s service as Archbishop of Krakow from 1963 and 1978, the cardinal employed Półtawska to teach his seminarians, especially on matters of sexuality. Even in today’s Poland, it is fairly uncommon for a lay woman to teach at a Catholic seminary.
During John Paul II’s pontificate, Półtawska was one of very few people to enjoy direct access to the pope. This had major significance in 2002, when Juliusz Paetz, then-Archbishop of Poznan, was credibly accused of molesting seminarians and young priests. Concerned Catholics in Poznan tried to inform John Paul but were met with a filter in the Vatican. During a private audience, Półtawska smuggled the Poznan seminary rector’s letter imploring a papal intervention under her shirt; subsequently, John Paul II sent a commission to Poland to study the case, and within months Paetz was dismissed and sanctions were placed on him.
Padre Pio’s miracle
Countless miracles have been attributed to St. Padre Pio, including years after his death. Wanda Półtawska owed her life to the Italian Capuchin mystic and stigmatic.
In 1962, Półtawska had been diagnosed with a malignant 13-centimeter tumor with a very poor prognosis. At the time, Archbishop Wojtyła went to Rome for the first session of the Second Vatican Council. When in Italy, the Pole sent a letter to Padre Pio, asking him to intercede for a 40-year-old mother of four and concentration camp survivor who was dying of cancer.
Years later, when Wojtyła was pope, he heard firsthand from the person who had hand-delivered the letter to St. Pio that upon reading it, the Italian remarked: “I cannot say no to that.” Indeed, shortly after Wojtyła’s intervention, as Półtawska lay on the operating table, her tumor disappeared. Her physicians were astonished, and she managed to live for more than six decades longer without ever again experiencing cancer.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask that “Thy will be done.” Thus, all of God’s graces happen for a reason. If we believe in the miraculous intervention of Padre Pio, we can logically infer that God chose to spare Wanda Półtawska and let her live such a lengthy life for a reason, that He had a plan for her.
Indeed, the next 61 years of Wanda Półtawska’s life were marked by prophetic pro-life witness. In his Jesus of Nazareth, the late Pope Benedict XVI writes that, contrary to common parlance, a prophet is not someone who can predict the future, like Miss Cleo. Rather, a prophet tells us how to properly worship God. Scripture, meanwhile, tells us that prophets are often unwelcome in their own country.
In the last five years alone, several Catholic-majority nations have legalized abortion on demand: Ireland, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia. Some prominent political leaders, including the president of the United States, want to legalize abortion up through the ninth month of gestation; in reality, the only difference between a late-term abortion and infanticide is semantic. Today’s world tells us that abortion is a routine medical procedure with no ethical repercussions, comparable to a tonsillectomy or appendectomy.
Yet for many years, particularly in post-communist Poland, Półtawska defended human life. She also harshly criticized in vitro fertilization and contraception. In 2014, she initiated the “Declaration of Faith of Catholic Physicians,” which was signed by 4,000 Polish doctors and medical students who vowed to never perform abortions on grounds of conscience. One year later, Poland’s Constitutional Court (then presided over by Prof. Andrzej Rzepliński, nominated by the liberal Civic Platform government) decreed that Polish physicians do have the right to not perform abortions if they find them immoral.
In particular, the “Declaration” made Półtawska hated by Poland’s leftist media and politicians. These same people claim to defend Polish democracy, yet even solely from the vantage point of Enlightenment secular values, freedom of conscience and religion is a cherished principle. In a liberal democracy, banning circumcision (as some courts in Germany, for instance, have tried to do) or kosher and halal meat would be considered intolerant towards Jews and Muslims, as would forcing Quakers and the Amish to serve in the military or Jehovah’s witnesses to donate blood. Logically, then, even if someone does not have religious qualms about abortion, should we not consider it illiberal to force physicians to violate the Fifth Commandment?
Some of Półtawska’s critics have been particularly nasty, including Stanisław Obirek, a former Jesuit priest who for years has been a sweetheart of the left-liberal media and is known for his pathological hatred of the Church and of St. John Paul II, especially. Just hours after Półtawska’s death, Obirek insulted her in an interview for the leftist TOK FM radio station, calling her “theologically illiterate” and, along with the Polish pope, “wreaking havoc in the Church.” When asked if Półtawska will be someday canonized, Obirek replied that that would be impossible due to her “harmful” and “unscientific” views on abortion, contraception, and masturbation.
Fortunately, Półtawska has many defenders in Polish society. In 2016, President Andrzej Duda gave her the Order of the White Eagle, the nation’s highest civilian distinction. Earlier this year, Półtawska became the patron of a neonatology ward in one of Krakow’s hospitals; hospital authorities ignored protests by the leftist media (at the naming ceremony, fewer than five anti-Półtawska protestors showed up, however).
There are so many obvious signs in the post-Sexual Revolution world that our understanding of human sexuality is seriously flawed. Many nations, including developing ones, are experiencing serious demographic decline, which has devastating economic implications, rather than the overpopulation fearfully anticipated in the 1960s. Exploding divorce rates are causing many children to suffer, while psychologists warn about the harmful effects of widespread male pornography addiction on relationships with women. Meanwhile, thanks to advances in science, we know that the unborn human is not a clump of cells, as brain waves are detected in the eighth week of pregnancy, yet this has not led to a greater pro-life sensitivity; on the contrary, more and more jurisdictions around the world are adopting legalizing abortion. And, finally, physicians are increasingly eschewing the Hippocratic Oath as growing numbers of countries are legalizing euthanasia rather than compassion and further medical research as a “solution” to disability, old age, and serious illness.
I am confident that in the future, when the Western world wakes up and realizes the devastating consequences of the Sexual Revolution frustrated, Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, as well as Wanda Półtawska, regardless of hate-mongering ex-priests, will be seen as prophets of the twentieth century.
On October 24, the pro-life movement lost a major advocate. However, it has gained a powerful intercessor in heaven.