Here is a family story of Pope John Paul II, an intimate tale of his humanity.
During the summer of 1942, two women in Krakow, Poland, were denounced as Jews, taken to the city’s prison, held there for a few months and then sent to the Belzec death camp, where in October they were killed in primitive Nazi gas chambers by carbon monoxide from diesel engines.
Their names were Frimeta Gelband and Salomea Zierer; they were sisters. As it happens, Frimeta was my wife’s grandmother. Salomea – known as Salla – had two daughters, one of whom survived the war and one of whom did not.
The elder of these daughters was Edith Zierer. In January 1945, at age 13, she emerged from a Nazi labor camp in Czestochowa, Poland, a waif on the verge of death. Separated from her family, unaware that her mother had been killed by the Germans, she could scarcely walk.
But walk she did, to a train station, where she climbed onto a coal wagon. The train moved slowly, the wind cut through her. When the cold became too much to bear, she got down at a village called Jedrzejow. In a corner of the station, she sat. Nobody looked at her, a girl in the striped and numbered uniform of a prisoner, late in a terrible war. Unable to move, Edith waited.
Death was approaching, but a young man approached first, “very good looking,” as she recalled, and vigorous. He wore a long robe and appeared to be a priest. “Why are you here?” he asked. “What are you doing?” Edith said she was trying to get to Krakow to find her parents.
The man disappeared. He came back with a cup of tea. Edith drank. He said he could help her get to Krakow. Again the mysterious benefactor went away, returning with bread and cheese. They talked about the advancing Soviet Army. Edith said she believed that her parents and younger sister, Judith, were alive.
“Try to stand,” the man said. Edith tried and failed. He carried her to another village, where he put her in the cattle car of a train bound for Krakow. Another family was there. The man got in beside Edith, covered her with his cloak and made a small fire.
His name, he told Edith, was Karol Wojtyla. Although she took him for a priest, he was still a seminarian who would not be ordained until the next year. Thirty-three more years would pass before he became Pope John Paul II and embarked on a papacy that would help break the Communist hold on Central Europe and so transform the world.
What moved this young seminarian to save the life of a lost Jewish girl cannot be known. But it is clear that his was an act of humanity made as the two great mass movements of the 20th century, the twin totalitarianisms of Fascism and Communism, bore down on his nation, Poland.
Here were two people in a ravaged land, a 24-year-old Catholic and a 13-year-old Jew. The future pope had already lost his mother, father and brother. Edith, although she did not know it yet, had already lost her mother at Belzec, her father at Maidanek and her little sister at Auschwitz. They could not have been more alone.
Pope John Paul II is widely viewed as having been a man of unshakable convictions that some found old-fashioned or rigid. But perhaps he offered his truth with the same simplicity and directness he showed in proffering tea and bread and shelter from cold to an abandoned Jewish girl in 1945, when nobody was watching.
It was based in the belief that, as he once put it, “a degradation, indeed a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human being” was at the root of the mass movements of the 20th century, Communism and Fascism.
Stalin once contemptuously asked, “How many divisions has the pope?” Starting with his 1979 visit to Poland, John Paul gave an answer.
Perhaps the strength that enabled him to play a central role in ending Communism and the strength that led him to save Edith Zierer did not differ fundamentally. Like his healing ecumenism, those acts required the courage born of a core certitude.
Edith fled from Karol Wojtyla when they arrived at Krakow in 1945. The family on the train, also Jews, had warned her that he might take her off to “the cloisters.” She recalls him calling out, “Edyta, Edyta!” – the Polish form of her name – as she hid behind large containers of milk.
But hiding was not forgetting. She wrote his name in a diary, her savior, and in 1978, when she read in a copy of Paris-Match that he had become pope, she broke into tears. By then Edith Zierer was in Haifa, Israel, where she now lives.
Letters to him went unanswered. But at last, in 1997, she received a letter from theVatican in which the pope recalled their meeting. A year later they met again at theVatican. Edith thanked the pope for saving her. He put one hand on her head, another hand in hers, and blessed her. As she parted, he said, “Come back, my child.”
Roger Cohen writes the “Globalist” column, which appears on Wednesday and Saturday in the International Herald Tribune. He is the author of “Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped by the Nazis’ Final Gamble,” published in April, 2005, by Alfred A. Knopf.