Karol loved theater. As a high school student in the 1930s, he wrote, directed, and starred in several plays. The reviews of his writing and performances from his contemporaries said that he had great promise and a bright future in the theater. He was able to enter university in the fall of 1938. We all know what happened the beginning of Karol’s sophomore year at college–Hitler and Germany invaded Karol’s homeland of Poland on September 1, 1939.
Karol and his father fled the advancing Germans on foot to the east. They managed to travel about 150 miles into central Poland when they received the news that the Soviets had invaded Poland from the east. With nowhere to run, the father and son pair returned to their town of Krakow. There, they found that the Nazis had ordered every able bodied man must show proof of employment or be subject to removal to a work camp. Karol managed to find “work” as a delivery person/messenger for a restaurant. A friend helped him arrange this paperwork, and the “job” helped to keep the German authorities off his back. He returned to his studies.
Karol felt that theater would be a way to passively resist the Germans. He saw the stage as an almost spiritual or religious place where cultural and political statements could subtly be made without the authorities being any the wiser. “He who has ears,” Karol said, paraphrasing a Bible verse, “let him hear.” For a little over a year, the young thespian managed to continue his coursework and maintain his employment situation. Eventually, he found paying work in a quarry, and this was a real job with good salary that he and his family needed.
Then, in 1941, Karol’s beloved father died. That event caused him to re-think what was important in life. He found solace in religion, and he added theology to his theater coursework. His theology connections at the university led him to helping several Jews hide from the Germans during this time. Again, Karol managed to walk the razor’s edge between the authorities and what he felt strongly God wanted him to do that was right and just.
In February, 1944, a German army vehicle struck him while he walked on the street in Krakow on his way home from the quarry. He suffered broken bones and a concussion. Surprisingly to the young Pole, it was some German officers who initially helped him after the accident. He began to see that there was good in almost everyone he met if one only looked for it.
Near the end of the war, as the Germans reeled before the swift advance of the Soviet Army, Karol came across a Jewish girl who had managed to escape from a concentration camp. She was on a train platform and had collapsed from hunger and cold. Karol helped her with some hot tea and gave her some food. He helped her–literally carried her–on a train that was going to her hometown, and even traveled with her to assist her with whatever she needed.
Years later, in 1998, the Jewish girl, who had been 13 when she encountered the nice young theater student who helped her, the man whom she credited with saving her life, met Karol again. She had tracked him down and wrote to him. He answered her letter, saying that, yes, of course; he absolutely remembered her. He invited her to meet with him, and she gladly accepted. This time, however, the meeting didn’t take place on a train platform.
No, this time, their meeting took place in the Vatican, because Karol had become Pope John Paul II.