[Paleopsych] NYT: The Polish Seminary Student and the Jewish Girl He Saved
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Wed Apr 6 21:56:39 UTC 2005
The New York Times > International > International Special > The Polish
Seminary Student and the Jewish Girl He Saved
By ROGER COHEN
International Herald Tribune
Here is a family story of Pope John Paul II, an intimate tale of his
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
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,
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
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 the Vatican in which the pope recalled their meeting. A
year later they met again at the Vatican. 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."
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