By Joseph Cunningham
A true story.
January, 1945. It was cold. A run-down freight engine began to drag its cars over ice-covered rails. They were leaving. The train heaved itself under a rusty gate, passing a sign that read the name of the Nazi concentration camp. They passed a line of growling dogs and sneering soldiers, who barked and spat at the train cars, beating the sides with frozen spit, iron rods, and gnashing words. But the prisoners inside didn’t seem to care; they were leaving, they were free.
The train was marked as rubbish – worthless prisoners who could no longer lift their share, those who were useless and no longer worth tormenting. They were free, sure, free from Hell to wander Purgatory. Their bony bodies swayed together in the icy draft. The cold only got colder. Cold, no – they were freezing, and so was Edith Zierer.
She was huddling in the corner. Thirteen years old. Coal dust and the black stench of their unwashed bodies suffocated the tiny rays of clean icy light. She wasn’t looking anyway. All she could think of was her mother and her sister, and the cruel death she had watched them die. Edith clenched her fists, then laid her hairless head in her hands and cried.
Freedom. The freight train breathed a heavy sigh and coughed a mess of black smoke into the air. The cargo doors were pulled open, the white sun on the snow blinding the weary passengers. They were pushed or dragged or carried off. Those who could walk did. Those who could not would be left on the cold floor of the train station to die. Try as she did, with tears in her eyes - Edith couldn’t walk.
She was left to lay against a frozen wall: ignored, waiting for death. And then it happened.
He didn’t seem much older than she. A warm smile lit up the face of a young passer-by as he crouched down next to her shivering frame. Edith peered into his kind eyes through the steam of the cup of tea he held out to her. There was something different in those eyes, something she hadn’t seen for a long time.
The young man handed her some bread and cheese. He took off his heavy overcoat and wrapped it around her shoulders. Everything seemed warmer now.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Edith Zierer,” came the weak reply. “I am a Jew.”
The young man only smiled.
She could not stand, so he lifted her slight frame onto his broad shoulders.
They left the station. The young man peered into the distant horizon, then began to trudge through the snowy fields until he found a country road, and flagged down a car bound for the nearest city. It wouldn’t be long now.
There the young girl was taken in by a Jewish family. The cold wind racked the windows and the housetops, but it wouldn’t bother Edith anymore. She was safe and she was warm.
Before the young man left, Edith, with grateful tears in her eyes, asked him his name. He whispered it and then was gone. But she would never forget.
It was warm. Thirty-three years had passed. Edith Zierer stood staring at the television in her home in Haifa, Israel, crying. She watched as thousands of others far away laughed and cried and cheered as well. And he was there.
The face she knew she would never forget appeared in front of the vast crowd as they breathed his name to world…
Wojtyla. Karol Wojtyla.
Or as we know him – John Paul the Great.