Stunned by the experience of grace

In 1962 Dr Wanda Półtawska noted in her diary “I don’t have cancer. There won’t be any operation. The tightening has eased up. The pain has gone, nothing hurts me any longer. I’m still in the hospital because the doctor still can’t believe it. They want to repeat the examination. Am I dreaming all of this? I don’t want to say that it’s a miracle. I reject this thought- I am afraid of it.” She was an exceptional doctor, community worker and mother, a girl guide called “sister” by John Paul II. She died on October 25 aged 102.

She was 41 at the time of the illness, with a husband about to finish his doctorate, four daughters from one to four years old, and a burgeoning career in the hospital and as an academic at the psychiatric faculty. She was an active community worker. She had been diagnosed already. It was cancer and in 1962 rather hopeless. Karol Wojtyła, a family friend, wrote to the then famous Father Pio on 17 November to pray for her. Pio himself is today a saint and the subject of a million strong worldwide cult. He enjoyed the reputation of someone who had been chosen by God for a special purpose in life and therefore was specially qualified as someone to ask for grace.

On November 21, the day of her operation, doctors performed their pre-operation procedures. They couldn’t believe their findings. “The final evidence, the final rectoscope showed something entirely different. At first I was dumbfounded that there was no pain. I thought at first that they had given me anti-pain medicine. But the scan was clear. The tumor that was there yesterday had gone. Ther was a reddening that showed up after a freshly healed mucous membrane”.

Wojtyła was certain that it had been in fact a miracle, according to Gerge Weigel his chief bioographer when John Paul II had told him this personally in 1997. But Dr Półtawska had to demur. “I wouldn’t dare to call it a miracle. I reject that notion, I’m afraid of it. I look at my emaciated body with a new vigour. The body is a place for the spirit to act, the Holy Spirit. No Lord, I cannot think about it in a mundane way. It was a miraculous recovery, and of course I am so obliged by it. I cannot accept this. I hadn’t prayed for recovery; it wasn’t something I had asked for”.

Wojtyła was a close friend of the Półtawski couple. He had written to them earlier “ he duty to fight for life and health is not contrary to giving oneself up to God. This is a dominant theme in your letter. If, after exhausting all other means (Woltyła’s stress) it will be different because that attitude would be fully real, whereas before it hadn’t been. It’s true that it would be against the will of God. It would be important if the certainty or probability of an operation were to be true. You had üdecide to reject it beforehand, you write. ‘ Medical experience shows us that the treatment often hastens the outcome. Furthermore you don’t want to become a cripple as wanted to result from this treatment and consider Andrzej”.

Andrzej and Wanda Półtaski were married for over seventy years, considerate and sensitive to each other. Above all they were dedicated to working for others, their children and patients, she for her students and he for mothers-to-be and for the Church. Each life was sacred for them and for God.
The Połtawski family, Wanda (1821-2023) and Andrzej (1923-2020) at the presentation in 2009 of ‘Beskidy Recollections. The history of the friendship between Karol Wojtyła and the Póltawski family’. Photo PAP/Paweł Kula
In 1941, Wanda Półtawska was not even twenty years old. But already he was experienced as a patriotic girl guide. But she was arrested in Lublin by the German police, and for her underground activities she was sentenced to death. She evaded execution true enough but was sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp with fellow scouts and guides. This camp was notorious for its pseudo-scientific medical experimentation on women and girls who were treated like guinea pigs, whose fate was a matter of indifference to the experimenters. Many as a result did not survive. Wanda did however, but was scarred. She could not understand nor bear this. She returned to Lublin. But she felt that the mothers of her friends looked on at her with an unanswered question on their lips; why did you live and not my daughters?

  She met a priest, Father Tadeusz Fedorowicz, a future chaplain at the renowned Laski home for the blind. He had returned voluntarily from Siberia and he understood what others who hadn’t experienced those times could not. “He understood my worry but despite not being able fully to help me, he resolved my doubts about life. He had a deciding influence in my career and marriage.” She wrote these thoughts in her well received “Beskidy Recollections” (published by St Paul Editions 2009)

She left Lublin and started her higher studies in Kraków. She thought that this was a predetermined, providential move as she met someone who could help her understand what she had lived through and how she should live with the burden of the war, the death of innocents, new born babies thrown onto pyres, and a feeling of not being able to have the capability to live a daily life that was a burden too heavy to bear.

Her husband Andrzej wrote in these memoirs “The constant contact with death changed her view of the world. There was a nothingness to everything that we care about, the ordinary and the everyday middle-class life. Like many former prisoners she couldn’t find a tranquil place that was outside the camp world. The domestic and professional life wasn’t enough. It couldn’t meet her anxiety and feeling of alienation. She looked for someone who could understand her and in this she met her confessor, Father Karol Wojtyła”.

From her horrific camp experiences, she came out with the deepest conviction that the life of a child should be protected at all costs. She became the assistant to Bishop Karol Wojtuła as a result, and not only in the widespread support network for mothers-to-be, but also in academic and pastoral affairs. Today it is no secret as to the enormous contribution of Wojtyłla to the Papal encyclical “Humanae Vitae” of Paul VI and that of Wanda Półtawska and her team.

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It’s difficult to wonder why Wojtyła, the family’s close friend, involved himself so deeply in supporting the gravely ill doctor. On November 28 , he wrote to Father Pio “ Reverend Father a woman form Kraków has four daughters and before her operation on November 21 she made a remarkable recovery. My thanks to God, and you Reverend Father on behalf of her and her husband and family.Your in Christ, Karol Wojtyła, Vicar Capitoline, Kraków”.

Połtawska meanwhile was coming to terms with this gift, this miracle, and herself. Wojtyła wrote to her and her husband a beautiful letter with thoughts on the name day of Andrzej himself who most likely would not be able to make it on time (he arrived on December 7), but the addressee knew that he sender was among those who congratulated him, he wrote. About Wanda’s recovery he wrote sparingly but convincingly. “For that, the health of Dusia we are grateful. If only we would be able to thank as warmly as we ask. Gratitude always places us in a specific position with regard to an individual. There’s always the same problem too. We must know how to keep this grace in our lives, to reveal its specific meaning slowly in our lives and in our vocation. It’s as though at a later stage that gratitude and its depth fills and deepens”.

Wanda noted that “in place of gratitude I feel an uncontrollable fear Timor Dei, a fear of God. I can't tell anyone that I’ve been miraculously cured, but this is what stigmatizes me for my whole life!”

Then the letter from Rome arrived, signed “Your Brother” as always.

Wanda had to come to terms with this grace that befell her although she had not asked for it “I am stunned by this experience of grace. I am struck, and I don’t know how to express it. A miraculous recovery is preventing me from becoming myself. Perhaps it has only just discovered me?
For the next sixty years, alongside her husband she would work to promote and protect life, overcoming countless obstacles and problems, even official harassment. In 2008, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University in Lublin and said that her credo was a beautiful love that led through marriage and parenthood to saintliness. Andrzek Półtawski, a professor of philosophy, died in 2020.

– Barbara Sułek-Kowalska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Jan Darasz
Wanda Półtawska, neé Wojtasik, was born 2 November 1921 in Lublin. She was educated at the Ursuline Sisters Union of Rome school. She served in the ‘Young Eagles’ detachment of the Girl Guide movement. She was arrested by the Gestapo on 17 February 1941. After a brutal interrogation she was sentenced to death in absentia, and on 21 September 1941 she was transported to Ravensbrück concentration camp. She was one of 74 Polish women experimented upon in pseudo-medical treatments. She started her medical studies in the autumn of 1945 at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. She gained a doctorate in psychiatry in 1964. She married Andrzek Półtawski on 31 December 1947 and had four daughters.

She worked with the archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła. She worked as a psychiatrist lecturing at the same time in pastoral medicine in Kraków and later in the John Paul II Institute at the Lateran University in Rome between 1981-1984. She was the organizer and director of the institute of Family Theology, and an expert at the Papal Academy of Life

A Dame of the Order of the White eagle and the papal medal ‘Pro ecclesia et Pontifice’ honorary citizen of Warsaw and a long serving councilor. In 2010 she was a signatory of a letter to the Polish president against the organization of the Europride march in Warsaw that expressed opposition to the legalization of same sex couples as well as the adoption of children by same sex couples. In May 2014 she was the author of ‘The declaration of faith by Catholic doctors and medical students in the field of sexuality and human fertility’.

She died on 25 October 2023 in Kraków.
Main photo: The friend of Pope John Paul II Dr Wanda Półtawska in 2015 at the presentation of the book “Learn to Love”. Photo PAP/Tomasz Gzell
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