Today, when interfaith meetings and celebrations are routine, it is difficult to imagine the impact of the first papal visit to the synagogue after 2,000 years of Catholic antagonism and persecution of Jews.
John Paul II, who once worked in a stone quarry, seemed destined by history and background to smash a large opening in the wall that had separated the two faiths for centuries.
As richly illustrated through text panels, documents, photos and videos in the Skirball Cultural Center exhibition, which continues through Jan. 4, the pope's 84-year lifespan is divided into four chronological segments.
The first section introduces the young boy, born Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, about midway between Krakow and Oswiecim (Auschwitz).
In contrast to most Polish towns, Catholics and Jews mingled freely in Wadowice. The Wojtyla family lived in a predominantly Jewish apartment building, many of Karol's classmates were Jewish, and he played goalie on a Jewish soccer team.
Next comes Karol's young adulthood, when the Nazi invasion and occupation closed the Krakow seminary attended by the future pope. He and 800 other students organized underground classes and continued their clandestine studies.
In the third section, with the war over, Wojtyla rises from priest to bishop, cardinal and archbishop of Krakow. He participates as a junior member in the Second Vatican Council, which opens a new chapter in the church's attitude toward other faiths. At the same time, he renews ties with the surviving Jewish community of Poland.
The final and climactic section, both in the exhibit and in Wojtyla's life, is his papacy, from his election in 1978 to his death in 2005.
This period included his visits to Auschwitz and to the Rome synagogue, and his formal repentance for his church's past antagonism toward the Jewish people. Earlier, in 1993, John Paul II commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in words imprinted in the exhibit's title:
"As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing to the world. This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to first be a blessing to one another."
In 2000, the pope undertook a pilgrimage to and formally recognized the State of Israel, inserting a note between the stones of the Western Wall.
In commemoration of this visit, a replica of part of the Western Wall stands near the exhibit's exit. There visitors can write their own notes and prayers, which will be transferred to the actual Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Across from the simulated wall is a bronze casting of the pope's hand as "a symbolic expression of the power of John Paul II's personal touch in reaching out to people across the globe," said Skirball senior curator Grace Cohen Grossman.
The Skirball center is making a special effort to attract Catholic visitors and members of the Polish community in Los Angeles to the exhibit, said museum director Robert Kirschner.
A large number of parochial schools have signed up for tours and the regular Skirball docents will be supplemented by guides drawn from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Given the large number of non-Jewish visitors, who may not be too familiar with the Holocaust, the exhibit also includes information on the extermination of Poland's and Europe's Jewry.
Two areas not covered in the show are the generally conservative doctrine and theology of John Paul II, and the attitudes and transgressions by past popes toward Jews.
"Our focus is on the remarkable outreach toward Jews and other peoples by John Paul II, his charisma and personal connections with people, and how the experiences of his early years led to his later accomplishments," Kirschner said.
The exhibition was created and produced by Xavier University, a Jesuit institution, and the Hillel Jewish Student Center, both in Cincinnati, together with the Shtetl Foundation. The local showing is supported by the Polish consulate in Los Angeles and private donors.
Several related public programs will complement the exhibition during its nearly four-month run. Included are concerts, films, classes, lectures, family workshops and gallery tours. For more information, call or phone (310) 440-4500 or visit www.skirball.org.
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