Pope John Paul II. | Flickr

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.