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How the future John Paul II saved a Jewish girl's life
Thursday, 23 March 2000, was an unforgettable day for Edith Zirer, a Jewish woman who was born in Poland but who has lived in Haifa for decades. At last, in the Yad Vashem Memorial to the Holocaust, she was able to personally thank Karol Wojtyla, the man who saved her life 55 years ago.
At that time, Edith Zirer said: "I remember perfectly well. I was there, I was a 13-year-old girl, alone, sick, and weak. I had spent three years in a German concentration camp at the point of death. And, like an angel, Karol Wojtyla saved my life; like a dream from heaven: he gave me something to drink and eat and then carried me on his back some four kilometres in the snow, before catching the train to safety."
Edith Zirer tells the story as if it had happened yesterday. It was a cold morning in early February, 1945. The young Jew, who was not yet aware that she was the only member of her family to survive the Nazi massacre, let a tall, strong 25-year-old, tonsured seminarian carry her and give her a ray of hope.
Today, at 66, Edith is the mother of two and lives in a beautiful home in the Carmel hills, on the outskirts of Haifa. She rebuilt her life in Israel, where she arrived in 1951, suffering from tuberculosis and frightful dreams connected with the war.
For many years, she kept this incident to herself. When Karol Wojtyla ascended the Chair of Peter in 1978, she felt the need to tell the story and express her gratitude. The question that arises immediately, of course, is how could she be certain that that seminarian is the Pope?
The reporters of Haifa's weekly newspaper Kolbo, who heard the story for the first time in 1998, say her story is very convincing. "She is not trying for publicity, all the details she gives seem credible."
The story speaks for itself. "On January 28, 1945, Russian soldiers liberated the Hassak concentration camp, where I had been imprisoned for almost three years, working in a munitions factory. I felt confused, I was prostrated with illness. Two days later I arrived at a small railway station between Czestochowa and Krakow." At this time, Wojtyla was in Krakow preparing for his priestly ordination.
"I was sure I would arrive at the end of my journey. I was lying on the ground, in the corner of a large hall where dozens of refugees were gathering, the majority of whom still wore uniforms with the numbers of the concentration camps. Then Wojtyla saw me. He came with a big cup of tea, the first hot beverage I had had in weeks. Then he brought me a cheese sandwich made with Polish rye bread, wonderful. But I didn't want to eat. I was too tired. He made me eat. Then he told me I would have to walk to catch the train. I tried, but I fell down on the ground. He then took me in his arms and carried me for a long time. All the while the snow fell. I remember his brown jacket, the tranquil voice who told me about his parents' death, and his brother's, the loneliness he felt, and the need not to be overcome by sorrow and to fight for life. His name was indelibly imprinted in my memory."
When they finally arrived at the convoy that would take the prisoners to the West, Edith met a Jewish family who alerted her: "Be careful, priests try to convert Jewish children." She was afraid and hid. "Only later did I understand that all he wanted to do was to help me. Now I want to thank him personally," she said.
Zenit News Service
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 13 No 4 (May 2000), p. 13
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