Hours passed before anyone noticed the girl on the train platform.
Edith Zierer had just been liberated from a Nazi labor camp in Częstochowa, Poland. Too weak to walk and with nowhere to go, she collapsed from hunger and exhaustion. She was 13 years old, and, though she didn’t know it, the last surviving member of her family.
The 24-year-old man who finally approached her that January of 1945 with a cup of tea and a sandwich was also alone in the world, having lost his last family member, his father, four years before. Karol Wojtyla wore the robes of a Catholic priest — openly, now that the Nazis were fleeing Poland. He asked Edith if she could stand. Seeing that she could not, he carried her several kilometers to another station, where they boarded a train to Krakow.
When Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II 33 years later, he approached his papacy the same way he did that girl on the platform: with understanding of the dignity of each human person, and the conviction that this dignity must have freedom to flourish. Historians have credited him with doing more to advance the falls of communism and dictators than any other single person in the 20th century. Millions of people owe their freedom to John Paul the Great, and for this reason he deserves a place on Hillsdale’s Liberty Walk.
Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are honored with places on campus out of reverence for their struggles against communism and socialism, but the duo is incomplete without the third and most effective member of their triumvirate. Thatcher, Reagan, and John Paul II all came to power during Cold War tensions between 1978 and 1980, and by the time they all left office the Soviet threat was no more. To tell the full story of the Western defeat of European communism, the president, the prime minister, and the pope should be displayed together.
In 1979, shortly after he was elected pope, Karol Wojtyla returned to his homeland for the first time as the Vicar of Christ. The Soviets intended to use this visit to solidify their control over Poland by showing that a Polish pope didn’t diminish their power. If the visit incited a riot, even better; they would use it to crack down on dissidents and blame the Church.
The scheme backfired. John Paul lifted the spirit of the suffering nation, and set into motion the Polish Solidarity Movement that would help cause the fall of the Soviet Union 10 years later.
In the words of Boston University professor emeritus Angelo Codevilla, “He told them to be good, not to compromise themselves, to stick by one another, to be fearless, and that God is the only source of goodness, the only standard of conduct. ‘Be not afraid,’ he said. Millions shouted in response, ‘We want God! We want God! We want God!’ The regime cowered.”
Despots elsewhere cowered as well. On visits to 129 countries, John Paul spoke to the people simply, affirming their rights and dignity. He brought them comfort and encouragement — often in their native languages, as he spoke 15.
Liberal Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash said of the pope shortly after his death in 2005, “No one can prove conclusively that he was a primary cause of the end of communism. However, the major figures on all sides … now agree that he was. I would argue the historical case in three steps: without the Polish Pope, no Solidarity revolution in Poland in 1980; without Solidarity, no dramatic change in Soviet policy towards eastern Europe under Gorbachev; without that change, no Velvet Revolutions in 1989.”
John Paul II is also uniquely suited to a college like Hillsdale because he was an educator who understood the value of community and recreation. When he taught ethics at Jagiellonian University in the 1950s, he brought students together for prayer, discussion, charitable service, and outdoor adventures like skiing and kayaking. This love for young people continued throughout his papacy with World Youth Day and similar events.
The perfect place for a statue of Pope John Paul II would be somewhere between Christ Chapel to signify his devotion to God, Ronald Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s statues to commemorate their friendship, and the quad as a testament to his concern for young people and fun-loving nature.
Members of Hillsdale’s community who might balk at the thought of honoring a Catholic pope and saint on the Liberty Walk may want to take a cue from Evangelical preacher Billy Graham. After hearing John Paul preach for the first time in 1980, Graham said, “I’ll tell you, that was just about as straight an evangelical address as I’ve ever heard … He gives moral guidance in a world that seems to have lost its way.” The pope and the preacher went on to become friends and support each other’s ministries.
On that freezing night in 1945, Edith slipped away from Wojtyla once their train reached Krakow. But she remembered the name Wojtyla, and thanked him for saving her life when they began corresponding after he became pope. She would tell him during a ceremony at the Israeli Holocaust museum that “he who saves the life of even one Jew is likened to one who has saved an entire world.” In a way, he did both.
Virginia Aabram is a senior studying history. She is an assistant editor for the Collegian.