Ravensbrück survivors await the arrival of Pope John Paul II at Auschwitz. Photo by Christian Simonpietri/Sygma via Getty


The life of Wanda Półtawska

Her closeness to Pope John Paul furnished him with anti-abortion ideals, fuelled by her survival of the Ravensbrück camp

by Joy Neumeyer + BIO

Ravensbrück survivors await the arrival of Pope John Paul II at Auschwitz. Photo by Christian Simonpietri/Sygma via Getty

In the late 20th century, Pope John Paul II emerged as the charismatic guru of abortion opponents. As he greeted the faithful in packed stadiums and posed for photos with rock stars, John Paul II helped turn the tide against abortion in many countries, including the United States. Behind his views and policies on sexuality stood a little-known woman who could often be seen padding around the Vatican in house slippers. As her long skirt shifted, it revealed a deep scar running down her leg.

In 1956, Karol Wojtyła (the future pope) met Wanda Półtawska in Krakow, the former seat of Polish kings whose outskirts were transforming into a Soviet-style industrial city. Wojtyła was a young actor-turned-priest; Półtawska was a psychiatrist and survivor of Ravensbrück, the Nazi concentration camp for women. The hell that engulfed Poland during the Second World War, in which one-fifth of the population died, had transformed both of their lives.

As Poland fell into the Soviet orbit from the late 1940s, competing ideologies sought to form diamonds from ash. Communists declared that history was moving Left and promised to build a new society in which the last would be first. Romantic Polish patriots placed the devastation in a tradition of martyrdom by the long-suffering ‘Christ of nations’. Many found little solace in either and got lost. As Półtawska’s friendship with Wojtyła deepened, she identified a means of redemption that would have consequences for women in Poland and around the world.

When Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland in September 1939, Półtawska was 17 years old. The youngest of three sisters from a family in Lublin, an ancient city in what is now eastern Poland, she attended a school run by Ursula nuns. Like many of her friends (who nicknamed her ‘the colonel’), she belonged to a scouting group. As the Nazis closed schools and executed members of the intelligentsia, scouts played key roles in the resistance. Półtawska became a courier for the underground Union of Armed Struggle, later renamed the Home Army. In February 1941, the Gestapo caught Półtawska and imprisoned her in Lublin castle. The Germans shot some prisoners, while others they sent to concentration camps. In September, Półtawska departed on a train heading West, to Ravensbrück.

Located by a lake 50 miles north of Berlin, Ravensbrück opened in May 1939 to house German political prisoners (communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses) and supposed ‘asocial’ inferiors (criminals, sex workers, Roma). That autumn, it began filling up with women from Nazi-occupied countries, many of whom had been in the resistance. Around 130,000 people passed through the camp in total; at least a third of them died, of malnutrition, bullets, lethal injection and, eventually, gassing. Prisoners were French and Dutch, Russian and Norwegian; 10 to 20 per cent were Jewish. By far the largest nationality represented was Poles, 40,000 of whom were interned there. Ravensbrück had a close relationship with Auschwitz, which was initially built to hold Polish political prisoners. When the latter introduced a women’s section, Ravensbrück trained the guards and housed its administration.

After their heads were shaved, Półtawska and her friends were given blue-and-white striped cotton dresses and jackets with a red triangle on the left shoulder, which identified them as political prisoners. They were put to work clearing cesspits, building roads, shovelling sand, and throwing bricks. Death could come at any moment. On 18 April 1942, 13 of the girls from Półtawska’s transport were executed; the entire camp could hear the shots.

One day, the surviving young women from Lublin were inspected by a group of doctors, who told them to lift their skirts. After baring their legs, some of them were sent to the hospital ward. Półtawska woke up unable to walk. As German soldiers died of infected wounds on the Eastern Front, Himmler had decided to use the concentration camps for medical experiments. At Ravensbrück, large amounts of bacteria were injected into incisions in the young women’s legs, along with dirt, glass and splinters. Some were subjected to bone breaks or grafts and muscle operations. Many developed abscesses, and several died. The girls who underwent experiments (almost all of whom were Polish) were nicknamed ‘rabbits’.

‘I felt cornered by this lustful crowd, this crowd of perverts’

For Półtawska, the operations brought a culmination of the physical revulsion that she had felt ever since her confinement in Lublin castle, where she was beaten by the Gestapo and held in packed cells that teemed with lice and fleas, typhus and scabies. Degradation of the soul and the body came together as Półtawska felt horror at the sexual relationships that emerged at Ravensbrück. ‘One night I was awakened by the hot kisses of a thin, pale girl,’ she wrote in her memoir about the camp, And I Am Afraid of My Dreams (1987). Półtawska shoved her away. ‘For the first time I felt disgust towards the female body, both hers and mine, and towards women in general.’

Półtawska first encountered ‘LL’ (the camp term for lesbische Liebe, or ‘lesbian love’) in the ‘asocial’ barracks, but it eventually spread to the Poles, too. She described it as a ‘contagion’ and an ‘epidemic’: ‘I felt cornered by this lustful crowd, this crowd of perverts.’ Gender boundaries blurred as some women wore male clothes and hairstyles, and assumed dominant roles within couples. Other survivors also mentioned sex among women in later writings and oral interviews, but Półtawska’s fixation on the subject was unique. ‘There came a time,’ she wrote, ‘when every gesture of the body and the hand seemed to me like a perversion, as if a disgusting grease had covered everything.’ She tried to shield her younger friend Krysia from the ‘unbelievable scenes’ she witnessed, ‘greedily and with despair’.

Polish prisoners’ sense of community helped them survive. An aristocratic art historian taught the younger women about Rubens; secret astronomy lessons helped them identify the constellations they saw above their heads during the lengthy outdoor roll call that took place every day at dawn and dusk. They organised literary lectures and plays, carved crucifixes out of toothbrush handles. In the winter of 1945, other prisoners helped the ‘rabbits’ survive when they were ordered to depart on a lethal ‘special transport’. Rather than reporting, they took the numbers of dead prisoners and hid in the barracks, overcrowded as the camp swelled with new inmates.

As the Red Army approached in spring 1945, Półtawska sneaked out with a group from Auschwitz that was being evacuated to a nearby subcamp, where she almost starved to death. For women, the danger didn’t subside when the war ended. In her description of her journey back to Poland, Półtawska said she fended off overtures by Russian soldiers, and she described a Ukrainian woman emerging from bushes in tears after being raped. She learned to read men’s body language to determine who was a threat, and hide from them in forests and sheds.

Upon returning home, Półtawska kept having dreams about the camp. In the summer of 1945, she stopped fighting her insomnia and spent the sleepless nights writing down memories. She felt alienated from her loved ones and ashamed that she had survived. Shortly before she was executed, a girl named Mila had asked Półtawska to tell her mother that she wasn’t afraid. Półtawska went to her village, stopping at the house by the mill as Mila had instructed. A man emerged with Mila’s eyes. Półtawska froze. She asked for directions to the bus stop and ‘ran across the meadow quickly, faster and faster,’ back towards where she came.

Everyone in Poland was haunted by what they had experienced, seen, and done during the war. Tadeusz Konwicki’s Salto (1965) captured the surreal quality of post-war Poland; in the film, Zbigniew Cybulski plays a man who jumps off a speeding train into a town where he claims to have been in hiding. He gives different names and tells contradictory stories; no one remembers him. He has a recurring dream that an executioner is coming for him, but instead the film culminates in a ghostly dance. As Stalin’s secret police consolidated control over Poland, obscuring one’s past became expedient. Anyone known to have served with the Home Army, which had been loyal to the Polish government-in-exile rather than the Soviet Union (and some of whose members continued to fight Soviet forces after the war) could end up imprisoned or dead.

Ravensbrück survivors tried to nurse their wounds and hide troublesome connections while going back to work, taking care of surviving family members, and resuming their educations. When she returned barefoot to her home in Warsaw, the ‘rabbit’ Helena Hegier-Rafalska found only smoking ruins. ‘I was psychologically broken,’ she later recalled. ‘I didn’t have anything to exist for.’ She couldn’t remember how to write or do arithmetic; she joked that she attended ‘Ravensbrück University’, but felt as if she had never gone to school at all. The only people she talked to about the camp were fellow survivors, with whom she stayed in touch through a club of former prisoners.

Półtawska, ‘tormented’ by the tension between the spirit and the body, decided to become a doctor. She left Lublin for medical school in Krakow, where she trained as a psychiatrist. Among her patients were child survivors of concentration camps. While seeking priests with whom she could consult on difficult cases, she encountered the name Karol Wojtyła.

Wojtyła had spent the war working in a factory and performing in an underground theatre. He dreamt of being the next great Polish playwright but decided to become a priest instead. In 1956, during the thaw that followed Stalin’s death in 1953, the reformist leader Władysław Gomułka promised a ‘Polish road to socialism’ that would accommodate national and religious sentiment. Also in 1956, the Polish state lifted the Stalinist ban on abortion.

She found a solution to the shame that had plagued her since she felt the hot kisses of a hungry girl

After meeting Wojtyła for the first time at a confessional booth, Półtawska saw him again at an event for ‘saving unborn children’. She supported the cause by opening a home for pregnant unwed women. On the basis of her wartime experience and clinical practice, Półtawska had concluded that unbridled sexuality diminished human dignity. The priest – an outdoorsman who promoted sports as a chaste outlet for the libido – agreed.

In Ravensbrück, Półtawska had dreamed of escaping to the forest. Now she and her husband accompanied Wojtyła on lengthy backpacking trips through the Beskids, a low-slung mountain range on Poland’s border with Czechoslovakia. As they held masses by streams and walked through fields studded with wild boar tracks, Wojtyła told her that human biology must be submitted to ethics. Over the course of their walks, she found a solution to the shame that had plagued her since she felt the hot kisses of a hungry girl: ‘family theology’, which would regulate the body by marrying faith with science.

According to Wojtyła’s book Love and Responsibility (1960), which relied heavily on claims Półtawska made in her papers and lectures, sexual pleasure within marriage fulfils the divine injunction to love, so long as it can lead to procreation. The ‘natural’ (rhythm) method, which leaves the final outcome up to God, is therefore the only acceptable form of birth control. ‘Artificial’ contraception (including pills, condoms, and withdrawal) leads to female neurosis and male impotence. The book included charts of the female fertility cycle to help readers plan accordingly.

If there was any erotic component to Wojtyła and Półtawska’s alliance, it was sublimated into their shared mission. They upheld the concept of ascesis, or self-mastery through discipline and denial. Though Półtawska’s memoirs do not mention it, Wojtyła flagellated himself with a belt in emulation of Christ’s afflictions; the extreme physical torment that she had endured and he was spared during the war was key to their mutual fascination. A miraculous triumph over the flesh brought them even closer together: when Półtawska was diagnosed with cancer in 1962, Wojtyła asked the Franciscan friar and mystic Padre Pio (who claimed to bear the stigmata and wrestle with the devil) to heal her. Półtawska said her tumour disappeared. As pope, Wojtyła went on to canonise Pio. Wojtyła signed his letters to Półtawska ‘Br’, for brat (‘brother’), and referred to her as his sister. After becoming a cardinal in 1967, Wojtyła wrote to Półtawska that he wanted to ‘put the matter of the family in your hands’. Together they established the Institute for the Theology of the Family, which offered ‘natural’ sex education and counselling for married couples as well as priests, students and doctors.

Wojtyła and Półtawska’s stance against contraception was generally in line with Catholic teachings until the 1960s, when the Second Vatican Council posed a challenge. This papal council, initiated by Pope John XXIII and seen through by Pope Paul VI, attempted to adapt Catholic belief and practice to the modern world; as part of this effort, the pope decided to revisit the Church’s prohibition on birth control. He appointed an advisory committee that urged the Church to end the ban, a position endorsed by a supervising commission of bishops and cardinals. On the advice of Wojtyła, who submitted a report prepared by his own panel of experts (including Półtawska), Paul VI overrode them. In 1968, he issued the encyclical Humanae vitae, which condemned contraception as an offence to God that destroyed relations among couples. ‘Family theology’ had prevailed.

The book Beyond Human Endurance (1970), a collection of camp memories by Polish ‘rabbits’, included updates on their lives. Many continued to struggle with pain in their legs and other health problems, as well as depression, anxiety and insomnia. ‘Complete physical and nervous exhaustion,’ one description read. Półtawska, meanwhile, was flourishing. By the late 1960s, she had transformed from lost survivor to resolute leader. ‘My life is so full it scares me,’ she wrote in her diary. In addition to running the Institute for the Theology of the Family and treating psychiatric patients, she had also earned a PhD. She wondered if she was neglecting her four daughters, but concluded that all her activities were for God.

Półtawska called on women to be virtuous wives and mothers whose lives were devoted to serving others. Those who rejected their natural roles were ‘seduced by Satan’ and doomed to depression. For some Ravensbrück survivors, motherhood was agonising. Hegier-Rafalska said that having a baby provided her with a goal in life, but she found herself unable to smile, kiss or hug her son; every time she looked at him, she thought of the children she saw in the camp. Her mother ended up serving as his primary caretaker. In Półtawska’s mind, however, maternity vanquished sorrow. In Old Scores (1969), a book of stories based on her clinical practice, she describes a woman with recurring nightmares about the war, one of which is so terrifying it causes her to miscarry, who finally finds bliss when she and her husband have daughters.

When Wojtyła was named pope in 1978, Półtawska was bereft: ‘I felt like a tree standing on suddenly dry ground, like an empty bell which cannot ring because it lacks a heart.’ He sent her a reassuring letter: ‘[Y]ou were and will remain my personal “expert” from the field of Humanae vitae. It has been this way for 20 years, and so it must stay.’ From now on, the Półtawski’s annual vacations took place at the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, where they imagined they were still climbing their favourite mountain ridge back home. Półtawska split her time between Krakow and Rome, where she served on the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical Academy for Life.

The history of reproductive rights could be reversed – if only certain people would give it a push

Półtawska frequently drew on her moral authority as a survivor of Nazi medical experiments to compare abortion with the mass murders of the Second World War and the Holocaust. For example, she told an audience in Lublin that ‘what doctors are doing [with abortion] is worse than the Holocaust.’ At her encouragement, John Paul II made similar statements, which found a receptive audience in the revitalised anti-abortion movement abroad.

During the pope’s lifetime, Półtawska’s role as his chief advisor on sexuality was little-known. After his death in 2005, she grew more vocal about their relationship, and became a star of conservative Polish media. A 2008 documentary shows her striding confidently through the halls of the Vatican while speaking fluent Italian to churchmen who variously revere, disdain and fear her. When Półtawska published a book about her close relationship with the pope, Polish clerics tried to assert that it had never existed. Vatican officials demanded that she hand over her archive.

In October 2020, Poland’s constitutional court imposed a near-total ban on abortion, which had already been severely restricted after the fall of communism. Półtawska called it the ‘victory’ that John Paul II desired: ‘I am very happy that I lived to see it.’ In the enormous protests that followed, protesters defaced John Paul II statues and invaded masses. The court’s decision was unpopular among most Poles, especially the increasingly secular younger generation, many of whom associate the Church with corruption and sex abuse scandals. Yet it showed the world that the history of reproductive rights could be reversed – if only certain people were willing to give it a push. Two years later, a majority-Catholic US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade.

Some former Ravensbrück prisoners, including Hegier-Rafalska, chose never to return; if she saw the camp, she said, then she would know that it had been real. Półtawska went back for the first time in 1959 with a delegation of survivors. As she saw the square where they stood at roll call and the punishment bunker where the disobedient were thrown without food, ‘the line between what was and what is completely blurred.’ People were tossing roses on the lake in memory of the dead, but there weren’t enough. Her thoughts turned to the women who never made it out:

What would the names and surnames mean if I listed all those who experienced their last lonely moment here? Nothing will change the fact of this terrible final loneliness. None of us will know what they went through here, the ones that stayed, even if I say everything about them: how Pola was slender and Grażyna had bleached curls, how Halinka had golden eyes like honey, and how Niusia was always dissatisfied, and Romeka was always smiling.

In September 2021, a pregnant woman named Izabela was admitted to a hospital in southwest Poland. Abortion remains legal in Poland only in cases when the life or health of the mother was in danger, but many doctors are afraid of performing the procedure; if a prosecutor decides it was unnecessary, the doctor could face jail time. Izabela felt that something wasn’t right with her baby, but the doctors kept saying they couldn’t operate because the baby’s heart was still beating. She texted her family what was happening over WhatsApp. ‘For now, because of the abortion law, I have to stay in bed and they can’t do anything,’ she wrote to her mother. ‘Alternatively, they will wait for the baby to die or for something to start happening. If it doesn’t, then great, I can expect sepsis.’ She died the following morning of septic shock.

Półtawska was blind to how her regeneration contributed to others’ pain

Solidarity with other women had enabled Półtawska to survive the camp and persist through life after it. But her vision of community excluded those who didn’t want or couldn’t have children, or found a different way to live and love. She referred to feminists as ‘witches’ and compared them with the female guards in Ravensbrück. For Półtawska, a faithful servant of God’s struggle against evil, human existence was chaotic; the Holy Spirit, clarifying. The divine light that suffused her world left Izabela’s in darkness.

Półtawska was not the only camp survivor who tried to banish ambiguity. The Polish poet and Auschwitz political prisoner Tadeusz Borowski wrote sardonic stories (first published in English as This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen) in which life in the camp is similar to the world outside it. While nationalism, Catholicism and communism framed individual suffering as collective redemption, in Borowski’s Auschwitz, no one is ennobled or absolved. After the war, Borowski tried to overcome this lack of resolution by becoming a Stalinist writer and denouncing his past work. His last project was a paean to Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Polish founder of the Soviet secret police. Borowski’s father had been a prisoner in Dzerzhinsky’s gulag.

Borowski’s materialism and Półtawska’s metaphysics were twin solutions to the problems of their generation. An ironist at heart, Borowski couldn’t resolve the contradictions in his mind; like some other camp survivors, he chose suicide, taking his own life at age 28 by turning on the gas in his apartment. Półtawska dispelled any doubt and is still alive today at age 101.

Another Ravensbrück survivor, Alicja Gawlikowska-Świerczyńska, suggests an alternative path. Tired of seeing death and feeling powerless to stop it, she also decided to study medicine, and became a specialist in sicknesses of the lung. When the Solidarity trade union movement began in 1980, she created a chapter in her hospital, which she said felt like being in the resistance again. In a later interview, Gawlikowska-Świerczyńska said that sex among women in the camp was ‘natural’. According to her, all the intense relationships that developed at Ravensbrück had ‘a delicate note of repressed sexuality’, which for most Polish women was restricted to close friendship. This was not evidence of their superiority: to the contrary, Poles were always ‘behind’ in these matters.

In a poem dedicated to those lost during the Warsaw Uprising (‘Dedication’, or ‘You whom I could not save’), Czesław Miłosz expressed his embarrassment before the dead: ‘What strengthened me, for you was lethal.’ Brilliant and pedantic, empathetic and cruel, Półtawska was blind to how her regeneration contributed to others’ pain. In the documentary about her, she is filmed strolling in the mountains where she once walked beside the man who became her brother. After the war, as some fell, she ascended, declaring the question of human suffering resolved. She kept pushing on with the thoughts that became her salvation, higher and higher, as if by walking she could escape.