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Memoirs of Pope's beloved Wanda threaten beatification

Concentration camp survivor 'exaggerated' her relationship, official claims

To him, she was "My Dear Dusia" and he signed his letters "Br" – short for brother. She was one of a handful of people by his bedside when he died, and visited him in hospital when he survived an assassination attempt.

In the cloistered world of the Vatican, Pope John Paul had a female friend with whom he shared spiritual thoughts in a series of letters that spanned the decades. Now she is defending her recent book against criticism from church officials that she "exaggerated" her friendship with the late pontiff and could delay his beatification.

Wanda Poltawska, 87, said her book – a collection of her religious meditations and John Paul's letters of spiritual guidance – was harmless to his saint-making process and she dismissed those who sought to play down her friendship with the Polish-born pope. "What is wrong in a priest's friendship with a woman? Isn't a priest a human being?" Ms Poltawska said in an interview from her home in Krakow.

No one has publicly suggested Ms Poltawska and John Paul had a romantic relationship, and the book makes no such claim. They referred to one another often as brother and sister, campaigned together against abortion in Poland under communism, and she often visited the pope with her philosopher husband and four daughters in tow. But responding to any possible speculation, she said this week: "We got to know each other in work, not in anything else."

The late pope's longtime private secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, has criticised Ms Poltawska for publishing the book, saying she claimed to have had a special relationship with the late pontiff that never existed. In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, he said John Paul had many dear old friends from Poland, and made them all feel like they had a preferential friendship. "That was his secret: to make all those who were dear to him feel like they had a special relationship with him," Mr Dziwisz said. "The difference is that Ms Poltawska exaggerates in her attitude, and the expressions and display of her behaviour are inappropriate and out of place."

Ms Poltawska was at John Paul's bedside in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace when he died on 2 April 2005. She was at his side when he was in hospital in the months before his death, and visited him at Rome's Gemelli hospital when he was shot in a 1981 assassination attempt.

Her photographs attest to a friendship that began in the 1950s when she sought out a priest to give her spiritual help to overcome the trauma she suffered during almost four years at the Nazi concentration camp of Ravensbrück, where she witnessed the killings of babies and children. John Paul, or Karol Wojtyla as he was known then, became that priest.

While occupying Poland during the Second World War, the Germans arrested 19-year-old Ms Poltawska for her activities in the Polish resistance. She was imprisoned, tortured under questioning and then sent to Ravensbrück, where she was submitted to the Nazis' medical experiments with germs injected into her leg.

Ms Poltawska published The Beskidy Mountains Recollections in February. The 570-page book recalls annual family vacations in the Beskidy Mountains with the Rev Wojtyla, trips that were filled with prayer and religious discussions.

It includes pictures of her family with him when he was pope at the Vatican and vacationing in Castel Gandolfo, the papal holiday residence outside Rome.

It includes diary entries from trips she took after he was elected pope to the places where they had vacationed. She reminisces with great longing about their times together, writing detailed descriptions of the places for the pope, who, ensconced in the Vatican, would write to her of how much he missed the mountains and rivers.

And it contains letters back to Ms Poltawska, including one in which John Paul said he believed God had given her to him as his project. "I ask (in prayer) for patience for you, for patience in all these tiny daily chores that are shaking your balance – as if shaking you away from that other truth," he wrote on one occasion. "I ask God every day in the intention of [husband] Andrzej and all your children. God has entrusted you to me with your deep and uneasy 'I' and with your whole life, with everything that belongs to it."

The emeritus head of the Vatican's saint-making office, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, criticised Ms Poltawska, saying she should have turned over all the letters to church officials two to three years ago when documentation was requested in support of John Paul's beatification, the first step before possible sainthood. "It wasn't done and it should have been," he said.

Pope Benedict put his predecessor on the fast-track for possible sainthood just weeks after his death, heeding the calls of "Santo Subito" or "Sainthood Immediately" that erupted in St Peter's Square during the funeral of the much-loved pontiff.

The preliminary investigation into John Paul's life and virtues, which gathered boxes of documentation as well as testimony from around the world, wrapped up in 2007 when the case was handed over to the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Theologians, bishops and cardinals are now reviewing the dossier.

Ms Poltawska has no doubt he will one day be sainted. To her, John Paul was a "paragon of modesty, poverty and sainthood". "He loved all people and wanted to save all," she said. "He had nothing: no car, no TV, no phone, nothing. Just a backpack and his prayer book."