He not only ended the use of "perfidious" as the accepted adjective for Jews in Catholic prayers but saved Jews from Nazi murderers when he was papal nuncio in Turkey and Greece. He helped tens of thousands flee Eastern Europe with forged birth certificates and arranged exit visas. After World War II, he refused to obey orders in France not to return Jewish children, who had been baptized, to their surviving parents.
Many are familiar with the document he begot called the "Nostra Aetate," but fewer know it as the "Magna Carta" of Catholic-Jewish relations, or are aware of the behind-the-scenes negotiations at the Second Vatican Council that were known as the "perils of Pauline." It was difficult for some at the council to give up the idea that "the Jews killed Christ," and unthinkable for many to accept the idea that Jews were acceptable in the sight of God. Hadn't the New Covenant mediated by Jesus superseded the Old Covenant between God and the Jews? The argument was so charged that a threat to blow up St. Peter's had to be taken seriously. (The threat turned out to be a hoax.)
Pope John Paul, born in a town near Krakow with a large Jewish population, knew his Jewish neighbors as friends. He was the first pope to visit both Auschwitz and the Great Synagogue in Rome. This fit with his expressed belief that Jews were his "elder brothers" in the faith. He further underlined penance at the Western Wall in Jerusalem where he expressed deep sorrow for the persecution of the Jews by sons and daughters of his church. Together the saintly duo was a one-two punch against anti-Semitism. In a recent survey of rising worldwide expressions of anti-Semitism, the old anti-Semitism of Christians was the least cited.
At the Vatican Museum, a painting by Alice Cahana, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz who lives now in Houston, hangs on the wall at the end of the 20th century exhibition. Titled "No Names," it's a dark nightmarish vision of a railroad track with tattooed numbers floating above it. "No Names" is the last painting a visitor sees before entering the Sistine Chapel, with Michelangelo's gorgeous fresco of "God Giving Life to Man." Hope trumps tragedy.