Wanda Poltawska was 17 when the German army overran her country.
She was 18 when Nazi doctors used her as a guinea pig for experimental surgical techniques at the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
She studied medicine and psychiatry in the difficult years after the war, trying to understand how human beings could sink to such barbarism.
But when she was stricken with cancer at age 40, a still greater tragedy loomed for her and her young children.
Then two saints stepped in.
The young bishop Karol Wojtyla wrote personally to St. Pio of Pietrelcina to ask for his intercession. “This one we can’t say no to,” said Padre Pio on reading the letter. When the cure came, the doctors called it “inexplicable.” Wanda knew better.
Now 88, she published her memoirs Diary of a Friendship first in Polish (Beskidzkie rekolekcje) and then in Italian (Diario di un’amicizia) last year. On Feb. 9, reported Andrea Tornielli in the Italian newspaper Il Giornale, she visited Milan for the public presentation of the Italian edition.
“I felt so comforted by the fact that someone finally understood me!” was her remembrance of the experience of going to confession with a young priest she had never seen before. The priest was Karol Wojtyla.
Soon, he became her spiritual director. Then came the deep friendship with her husband Andrzej and their children.
And before long, their family was his family.
He encouraged her to found an institute for young mothers in difficult situations, and he lent her a room in his apartment for counseling couples in marital crisis.
“They were different, but they had so much in common,” Andrzej writes in the prologue to his wife’s book. “It was the encounter between a very masculine man, in the deepest sense of the word, with a very feminine woman, in the best sense of the word: sensitive, with deep sentiments, willing to work hard for others.”
“Even today,” Wanda reflected, “it’s possible to live a pure friendship between a man and a woman. We can and we ought to love all people as brothers and sisters, beyond the simple relationship between husband and wife.”
“I’ve met so many holy priests,” she continued, “not just him, who know how to cultivate pure friendships with women while remaining faithful to their celibacy.”
What does she remember most? The question struck her as odd.
“It’s not so much that I remember him. I’m still in contact with him, in a certain way. You can talk to the saints. I think that even right now he ‘s here right beside me.”