- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2005

The round white cap rests in a pool of light. A mirror below reflects initials inscribed in the lining: “JPII.” This skullcap, worn by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Israel in March 2000, is part of a new exhibit at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center.

The exhibit, “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People,” opened its national tour Wednesday.

The exhibit tells the story of a relationship between Karol Wojtyla and the Jewish people that began decades before that historic trip to Israel. The story begins in Wadowice, Poland, where the future pope attended school and played soccer with Jewish friends. One Jewish classmate, Jerzy Kluger, would become a lifelong friend.

In designing the exhibit, creators tried to avoid assembling a collection of sterile photos and glass cases, said co-director James Buchanan, of Xavier University. “The one thing we insisted on was that it be experiential.”

As ambient sounds play in the background, 8-foot tall photographs line the walls. One shows the pope atop Mount Nebo in Israel, surveying the Promised Land. Another portrays Wadowice as young Karol Wojtyla would have seen it.

The late pontiff’s friendship with Mr. Kluger features prominently in the exhibit. Video screens display an interview in which Mr. Kluger recounts school days with young Karol Wojtyla. When he became pope in 1978, John Paul held his first private audience with Mr. Kluger and his family.

The exhibit’s creators say the friendship represented the pope’s love and concern for the Jewish people.

To honor a pope known for his hands-on, physical presence, exhibit creators developed a display that welcomes touch and interaction. Visitors are encouraged to touch a bronze casting of the pope’s hand.

“We wanted visitors to be immersed in a world,” said William Madges, exhibit co-director and chairman of Xavier University’s Department of Theology.

A section of the exhibit is devoted to Karol Wojtyla’s life in Krakow, where he studied at Jagiellonian University until the school was shut down by invading Nazis in 1939.

To enter this section, visitors walk through a replica of the Krakow Ghetto Gate. As speakers buzz with the sound of warplanes and dropping bombs, visitors view artifacts lent by the Holocaust Museum at Auschwitz. The rumpled brown shoes of exterminated Jewish children sit near an empty canister of Zyklon-B, the chemical Nazis used in Auschwitz gas chambers.

Rabbi Abie Ingber, co-director of the exhibit and executive director at the Hillel Jewish Student Center in Cincinnati, concedes that it is unusual to display Holocaust artifacts in an exhibit about the pope. But there are “amazing pathways of commonality between Jews’ experience and John Paul II’s childhood,” he said.

The exhibit provides insight into the background of a pope who took unprecedented steps to unite Roman Catholics and Jews, becoming the first pope to enter a synagogue in nearly 2,000 years and officially apologizing for the failure of individual Catholics to help Jews in the Holocaust.

“John Paul II built a bridge that was incredible in its outreach,” Mr. Ingber said.

Near the end of the exhibit stands a floor-to-ceiling model of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, complete with scraggly sprouts of foliage poking through the wall’s cracks. It is a replica of the section of the wall where the pope once inserted a written prayer, in accordance with Jewish tradition.

Visitors are encouraged to place their own written prayers in the model wall. When the exhibit closes, directors will fly the collected prayers to Jerusalem and insert them into the real Western Wall.

The pope gave his blessing to the exhibit when its creators presented it to him in 2004. His endorsement aided the directors in acquiring artifacts such as the biretta worn when he became cardinal, handwritten notes, and a wooden cane used by the pope on his Israeli trip.

The exhibit will run until Jan. 15. Directors are negotiating to take the exhibit to New York, Boston, Chicago and possibly Krakow, Poland.

The director of the Cultural Center, the Rev. Monsignor William Kerr, called John Paul “a man who led a community into the embrace of another community.

“Our mission is to take the legacy he left us and extend it into the future,” he said. “This exhibit is the first step in extending that legacy.”

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