In 1943, there was an uprising against the Nazi occupiers in the Jewish ghetto in Częstochowa, Poland, which the SS quickly crushed, killing many Jews. Many more were sent to death camps. Those who remained in Częstochowa worked on as slave laborers, until the Red Army liberated the city, by which time it was, as the Nazis would have proudly proclaimed, almost completely Judenfrei.
As history has shown since Poland emerged from its post-war communist past, that “liberation” was double-edged. Poland truly was, as Fulton Sheen put it, a nation “crucified between two thieves.”
Just 13-years-old on January 28, 1945, an exhausted and malnourished Jewish girl, Edith Zierer, found her way to a depot along one of the train lines that ran through Częstochowa. Believing her family was alive in Kraków, she climbed into a coal car that was part of a train she hoped would take her there. But the cold wind that blew through the open car was too much to bear, and about two hours later, in fear of being frozen to death, she climbed out of the car when the train stopped. She limped onto the platform at the station in Jedrzejow – a providential decision, not least because the train she abandoned had been heading east. Kraków was south.
She sat inside the station alone. If passersby noticed her, they ignored her, though it was clear she was a refugee. She was dressed in the numbered uniform, now ragged, that the always-efficient Nazis made slave laborers wear. Anyone with eyes to see could tell how weak and hungry she must be. But no one came to her aid.
Edith was beginning to think it might be better to die. . .until Providence intervened. As her grand-nephew, Roger Cohen, explains, “Death was approaching, but a young man approached first, ‘very good looking,’ as [Edith] recalled, and vigorous.” According to Edith, the young man asked her, “Why are you here? What are you doing?” So, she told him.
In another account, the young man also wanted to know her name. She told him, and that made her cry, because for years she had been merely a number.
The man walked away, only to return with a cup of tea. As she drank, he said he was also headed to Kraków and pledged to help her get there. She was wary. He went back to the place where he’d bought the tea, returning now with bread and cheese. That helped, no doubt a lot.
The stranger, familiar with the train lines and schedules in the area, knew that the soonest train destined for Kraków was several villages away. He may have sensed that Edith might not have much time left.
“Try to stand,” he said. She could not. So he took her up onto his back and carried her more than a mile-and-a-half to that other station. And once again she found herself in a coal car. Another Jewish refugee family was also hiding there. The young stranger settled into the car as well. He put his cloak around Edith. He built a small fire in the bed of the car to provide warmth and light against the bitter winter cold. Finally, he introduced himself.
“My name is Karol Wojtyla.”
With the cloak removed, Edith and the Jewish family could see he was a Catholic priest. Or so they assumed from his cassock. In fact, he was still a seminarian.
When they arrived in Kraków, Karol exited the train, perhaps to get information that might help Edith find her family. When he returned, she was gone. One of the others on the car had urged her to flee, lest this priest put her in a convent. “I ran away,” she said, “because people started to ask why a priest was walking with a Jewish girl.”
She recalled hiding behind a stack of metal milk containers when her rescuer began calling out her name in Polish: “Edyta, Edyta!”
As Mr. Cohen writes:
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.
In that moment, Edith Zierer did what she assumed necessary for self-preservation – of her life and her faith. But she never forgot Karol Wojtyla.
When she read in a newspaper in 1978 that this extraordinary man had been elected pope, she wept. She wrote to him several times but received no reply. . .for twenty years. But in 1998, they were reunited in the Vatican. At that meeting, according to Mr. Cohen, the pope laid his hand upon her head and said, “Come back, my child,” an odd thing to say half-a-century later.
Perhaps he was remembering his anxious call to her in the Kraków station: “Edyta, Edyta! Come back, my child.” Or maybe he was inviting her to return to Rome for another visit, and, although that never happened, they did meet again in 2000 at Yad Vashem during John Paul’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem. “He was a kindred spirit in the greatest sense – a man who could save a girl in such a state, freezing, starving and full of lice, and carry her to safety,” she told Reuters after the death of St. John Paul in 2005. “I would not have survived had it not been for him.”
In that visit to Yad Vashem, the 80-year-old saint walked over to greet six Holocaust survivors, one of whom was Mrs. Zierer. The pope greets each person, until he comes to Edith. He places a hand upon her shoulder as they speak. She said later that she “did not cry at the Vatican but at Yad Vashem, I just burst into tears.”
Edith died in 2014.