The Jewish Girl He Saved

John Paul II met with Edith Zierer for the second time as pope in 2000 at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

John Paul II met with Edith Zierer for the second time as pope in 2000 at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

It happened in January 1945, two days after Edith Zierer emerged from a Nazi labor camp in Czestochowa, Poland. Sick and hungry, the thirteen-year-old Jewish girl had staggered through snow and bitter cold before collapsing in a corner of a village train station. Unaware that her parents and sister had died in the Holocaust, she had been trying to get home to them in Krakow. Now, too weak to move, she was waiting for death.

People came and went around Edith. Maybe they felt too busy to get involved—or fearful, or even reluctant to reach out to a Jew. Though some Poles had risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors, others harbored anti-Semitic views and had cooperated with the Nazis.

The young seminarian who finally noticed Edith was different. It wasn’t just that he wore a black cassock; it was his kindness. He brought her a cup of tea—her first in three years—and a hearty sandwich. He offered to accompany her to Krakow. And when he discovered she was too feeble to walk, he carried her on his back to catch a train several miles away. Only after they had reached their destination did she ask his name: “Karol Wojtyla.”

For years, that was all Edith knew about her rescuer. Then one morning in 1978, in her home in Haifa, Israel, she opened a newspaper and burst into tears at the lead story: Karol Wojtyla had been elected pope – Pope John Paul II.

“I want to thank you,” she wrote John Paul, identifying herself as the girl he had saved. And so they met again: once in Rome and again at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. There, barely able to speak through tears, Edith Zierer recited a line from the Torah: “One who saves a life, it is as if he saves the whole world.”

Becoming pope didn’t lessen Karol’s alertness to the needs of people around him, whatever their position. Andreas Widmer experienced this on Christmas Eve 1986, when he was a newbie Swiss Guard assigned to guard the papal apartments. Lonely and homesick, Widmer was in a miserable state as the pope passed by on his way to Midnight Mass.

Taking in the guard’s dismal look and red eyes, John Paul stopped and said, “You’re new! What’s your name?” And then, “This is your first Christmas away from home, isn’t it?” Andreas managed a yes. The pope gave him a penetrating look, clasped his hand, and said, “Andreas, I want to thank you for the sacrifice you are making for the Church. I will pray for you during Mass this evening.”

“That was all I needed,” said Widmer. “Someone had noticed my pain, someone had cared, and that someone was the pope himself.”

 

Source : The Words Among Us – Easter 2014

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