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April 06, 2005

An Act Of Kindness -- Remembered 60 Years Later

This story by Roger Cohen of the International Herald Tribune is moving and beautiful, a story of kindness and compassion that arose out of the ashes of the Holocaust and the Second World War. It is also a family story, about his mother-in-law’s experience after surviving the Nazi horrors.

That it also serves as a moving tribute to the young man involved on the occasion of his passing makes it that much more beautiful. I could not help but weep as I read this story of the meeting between a young Jewish girl and a Polish seminarian.

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.

I urge you to read the rest. It so clearly shows that Karol Wojtyla was truly every bit the man of kindness, decency, and holiness that we would all come to know as Pope John Paul II.





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