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his lesser-known story took place in 1945 during the end of World War II (WWII) when Poland was being liberated by the Soviet troops. Karol Wojtyla, later known as Pope John Paul II, lived in the Polish city of Krakow. Faith made him meet with Vasily Sirotenko who was a major in the 59th Army of the Soviet Union.

Vasily Sirotenko (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes events are strange, making the fate of important people dependent on an ordinary person. So was the case with Pope John Paul II. His life was saved by a Soviet officer. If Vasili had not saved Karol then, it is not known who would have become the head of the Vatican instead. Major Sirotenko, a historian by profession, had graduated from the Chernihiv Pedagogical Institute before the war and worked there as a teacher.

His favorite theme was Ancient Rome and the transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. During the war, books about the Roman Empire, in Latin and Italian, came into Vasili’s hands. He did not know these languages, but his professional curiosity did not give him peace, so he began looking for a translator.

Thus, he met the seminarian Karol Wojtyla, who worked in the stone quarry. Karol, in addition to these two languages, also knew Russian, French, and Spanish. The future pope was brought before the commander of the unit when he was sleeping. Vasili woke up, shaking hard and insistently on the shoulder. The soldier reportedly brought a translator.

Sirotenko later remembered that when he saw a man in a black cassock in front of him, he looked at the man in front of him as if he were enchanted. Tall, thin, in a frenzy, with deep, penetrating eyes, the young man seemed quite unusual. Here is what the major later confessed:

“Because I had just woken up, I had the impression that Jesus Christ had come down to me. I had seen Christ on the shroud.”

The officer and the seminarian got to know each other, and after a while they became friends. World War II was difficult; people were shot, and thrown into camps; all sorts of sad events were happening, Everyone expected misfortune and death around every corner.

Going against Stalin

Unexpectedly, an order from Stalin arrived in Krakow stating that all seminarians were to be shot or exiled for life in Siberia. Sirotenko was not afraid to speak out against the order — he valued his friend very much and did not want to lose Karol. In the telegram, he explained to management that he needed Karol as a professional translator and as a person who knew Krakow well. Sirotenko began to suffer, and the army leadership accused him of disobeying Stalin’s order, but he heroically endured all the hardships. Karol began his “second life.” A little later, something unpleasant happened to Vasili.

Pope John Paul II in 1948 (Source: Rare Historical Photos)

A report arrived from the Parent Military counter-intelligence State Defense Committee, in which Vasili was accused of relations with the clergy so that he could hide the so-called Karol Wojtyla, therefore he was considered a traitor by the Soviet Union. Sirotenko did not leave his friend in need this time either. He told the committee that Wojtyla’s mother was Russian. This meant that Russia was his homeland and he did not betray anyone. Understanding that his friend was in constant danger of death, without the knowledge of those the Soviet government, the major helped the seminarian to escape, saving his life.

The letter sent by John Paul II to Vasily Sirontenko (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Many years had passed since then, and one day, the former officer, now a history teacher, heard on the radio about the appointment of the new leader of the Catholic Church in Rome. He was very surprised that this high position was occupied by the man whose life he had saved! Sirotenko was a very modest man and for a long time, he hesitated to contact the pope to remind him of their past together.

However, his colleagues wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II, to which they did not receive an answer for a long time. The former major, on his birthday, received an envelope from the Vatican. He opened it and saw the pope’s photograph; on the back, the pope congratulated him on his birthday, concluding with a short phrase:

“I pray for you every day.”

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