[Paleopsych] NYT: The Polish Seminary Student and the Jewish Girl He Saved

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The New York Times > International > International Special > The Polish
Seminary Student and the Jewish Girl He Saved


    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."


    1. http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=bylL&v1=ROGER%20COHEN&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=ROGER%20COHEN&inline=nyt-per

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