ROME, MAY 3, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Seminarian Karol Wojtyla may have never survived to reach the papacy if it hadn't been for a Soviet Red Army officer who loved history and who ignored an order of Stalin's in 1945.
Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, unwittingly saved his own life by helping the Soviet officer translate books on the fall of the Roman Empire.
This previously untold episode of the Pope's life was published in the Italian weekly magazine Famiglia Cristiana by the officer himself, Major Vasilyi Sirotenko.
Sirotenko, a professor of medieval history, was a member of the 59th Armada of General Ivan Stepanovich Konev, who took Krakow from the Germans on Jan. 17, 1945.
The next day, the soldier was among the men who occupied a quarry of the Solvay firm, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the city.
"The Germans surrendered there also and escaped almost immediately," Sirotenko wrote. "The Polish workers were in hiding. When we arrived, we began to shout: 'You are free, come out, come out, you are free.' When we counted them, they numbered 80. Shortly after I discovered that 18 of them were seminarians."
The liberation by Stalin's army was no banquet. Soldiers stole what they could: money, watches, clothes. The first Russians who entered Krakow only wanted food.
Sirotenko, on the other hand, was looking for books in Latin and German. So he was glad when he spotted the seminarians.
"I called one of them and asked him if he could translate from Latin and Italian," Sirotenko recalled. "He told me he wasn't very good in these subjects, he had studied little. He was terrified, and added immediately that he had a very intelligent friend who was clever in languages, a certain Karol Wojtyla.
"Then I gave the order that Karol be found. I discovered that he was quite good in Russian, as his mother was a 'Russinka,' that is, a Ukrainian of Russian roots. That is why I also had him translate documents from Russian to Polish."
Sirotenko became friendly with Wojtyla and asked him to translate articles on the fall of the Roman Empire, which was subject to all kinds of interpretations by Stalin.
The officer and his translator became so friendly that, one day, a political commissar, Lebedev by name, called the Soviet officer: "Comrade major, what are you doing with that seminarian? Are you planning to ignore Stalin's orders? Are you not convinced by the Aug. 23, 1940, order regarding Polish officers, teachers and seminarians?"
Sirotenko replied: "I cannot shoot him. He is too useful. He knows languages and the city." He added: "The commissar knew it was true, but didn't want to take any risks. So he told me it was my responsibility."
The first wagons of prisoners then left for Siberia, with people who would never return. The Solvay quarry seminarians were among the first on the list. Sirotenko saved their lives, however. He used the same excuse to persuade Lebedev.
"I wrote an order in connection with exigencies related to military operations taking place in Krakow, stating that Wojtyla and the others should not be deported," he recalled.
When Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope in 1978, Sirotenko was one of the few people in Russia who recognized the name, with the exception of the government and the KGB.
On March 6, he received a letter from the Pope, congratulating him on his 85th birthday. The old history professor and former officer of the Red Army looked at the letter and said: "We have both had a very full life."