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April 16, 2005

What we do when no one is looking defines us


Once upon a time, in 1945, an anonymous 24-year-old Polish man offered food and shelter to a 13-year-old girl on the verge of death.

Here is the absorbing story by Roger Cohen, which appeared in the International Herald Tribune on April 6.

    The Polish Seminary Student And the Jewish Girl He Saved

    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 extermination 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 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 off the train at a village called Jendzejuw.

    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 the girl 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 her parents and younger sister, Judith, were alive.

    "Try to stand," the man said.

    Edith tried - and failed.

    The man 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 set about making a small fire.

    His name, he told Edith, was Karol Wojtyla (top, at age 12).

    Although she took him for a priest, he was still a seminarian who would not be ordained until the following year.

    Another 33 years would pass before he would become Pope John Paul II and embark on a papacy that would help break the religion of communism and so transform the world.

    I do not know what moved this young seminarian to save the life of a lost Jewish girl.

    I do know that his was an act of humanity made as the two great dehumanizing forces of the 20th century, the twin totalitarianisms of fascism and communism, bore down on his nation, Poland.

    Here were two people alone in a ravaged land, a 24-year-old Catholic and a 13-year-old Jew.

    The future pope had already lost his family - mother, father and brother.

    Edith, although she did not know it yet, had already lost her mother at Belzec, her father at Majdanek, and her little sister at Auschwitz.

    They could not have been more alone.

    We are alone.

    All of us.

    The great opiates of the 20th century - communist and fascist ideology - promised to subsume the individual into the collective glory of a beckoning utopia, but they delivered only new and more terrible forms of suffering.

    In his early, and very personal, observation and absorption of this suffering lie the roots of the late pope's core belief: the inalienable value and sanctity of each human life.

    This belief carried Pope John Paul II to convictions that some found old-fashioned or rigid.

    But in an indulgent age of moral pliancy, why seek to be indulged by the pope, of all people?

    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 a truth based on the belief that, as he once put it, "a degradation, indeed a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human being" had lain at the root of the repetitive mass murder of the 20th century.

    The power of that truth answered forever Stalin's contemptuous question - "How many divisions has the pope?" - as John Paul II, starting with his 1979 visit, undid Stalin's iron legacy in Poland and so opened the way for the unification of Europe a decade later.

    This was not his achievement alone, by any means, but in an inalienable way it was his.

    I do not believe the strength that enabled him to do this and the strength that led him to save Edith Zierer differed in any fundamental way.

    Like his healing ecumenism, these acts required the courage born in 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 when, in 1978, 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.

    Successive 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 they parted, he said, "Come back, my child."

"He who saves one life, saves the world." — Maimonides

April 16, 2005 at 01:01 PM | Permalink


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