When Pope John Paul II visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum in 2000 he met with a group of Holocaust survivors, among them Edith Zierer of Haifa. “He who saves the life of even one Jew is likened to one who has saved an entire world,” she told him in Polish. “He put his hand on my shoulder and I was so moved. I had closed a circle,” she told the daily newspaper Maariv.
She was born to a wealthy and educated Jewish family in Katowice, Poland. In 1939, in advance of the German invasion of Poland, her family fled and moved from place to place. “We hid in the attic of Polish farmers, among the hens,” she recalled.
Her father, mother and sister were subsequently murdered, and Zierer remained incarcerated alone. She worked in a weapons factory in the Skarzysko-Kamienna labor camp in occupied Poland. “I worked for 12 hours a day. I was lucky that I spoke a good German and that the German bosses liked me. Otherwise I probably would have ended my life,” she said. “I worked from the end of 1942 until January 28, 1945. I was by myself, alone in the world, in harsh conditions, in freezing cold, doing hard labor. I was small, weak, without shoes, with frozen feet.”
After her release at the end of January 1945, Zierer lay helpless in an old train station in Poland. “I was thin, eaten up by lice, tired and exhausted. There wasn’t a drop of life in me. I was lying there, apathetic and motionless,” she later said in an interview.
“Suddenly, totally unexpectedly, a young priest made his way through the people and approached me. I looked up and saw a Christian priest in a brown robe standing in front of me, with a great light in his eyes. He turned to me of all the people who were sitting there in the station, and asked ‘Why are you sitting here like that?’” she recounted.
The young priest was Karol Wojtyla, who in 1978 would become Pope John Paul II. He brought her a sandwich and tea. “I was thin, gaunt, tired and ill. To this day I remember the first bite ... I finished the sandwich and he told me to stand up because ‘We’re going,’ as he said. I wasn’t capable of standing on my skinny legs. I fell onto the floor of the train station and he was forced to carry me in his arms.”
Wojtyla carried her on his back for about three kilometers, until they reached the station from which a train took them to Krakow. “We were both alone on the railroad track, in the dark ... We arrived together, I on his back, at the next station,” she said.
In Krakow she was taken in by a relative, and later had the good fortune of being one of the 100 orphans taken in and rescued by Lena Kuchler. She wandered with them to Zakopane, Czechoslovakia and France.
Kuchler asked Zierer to write a diary describing her experiences in the Holocaust. “I won’t write about my childhood anymore,” wrote Zierer at the beginning of the diary. “In my imagination I see everything, the entire past, and that is very painful to me.”
Zierer’s health during those days prevented her from continuing to write the diary. It ended with a comment in Kuchler’s handwriting: “The diary was discontinued because a daily fever, headaches and a terrible mood make writing hard for Editha.”
In 1951 Zierer immigrated to Israel, where she raised a family and worked as a dental technician. Kuchler’s book “My 100 Children,” which was published in 1958, became a best seller translated into many languages. The two kept in contact. In 1985, two years before Kuchler’s death, she sent Zierer a copy of her book “My Mother’s House,” with a personal dedication: “To Edith Zierer and her entire family, who on her own rehabilitated herself and built an exemplary home and family in Israel, with lots of love to one of the hundred, Lena Kuchler, Givatayim.”
Surviving Zierer are a daughter, a son, grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.