Early life and influences
As a child in Wadowice, Poland, he was called “Lolek,” a nickname for Karol (the Polish version of Charles) which would stay with him as an adult. The first two decades of his life coincided with the only period of independence that Poland would know between 1772 and 1989. It began with Marshal Józef Pilsudski’s defeat of the Soviet Red Army in 1920 and ended with the German invasion in 1939. Wojtyla thus grew up experiencing national freedom but also understanding its vulnerability.
When Wojtyla was eight years old, his mother died of what doctors described as an infection of the heart and kidneys. A few years later, his older brother, by then a physician, died of scarlet fever contracted from a patient. Acquaintances remember the 12-year-old boy accepting the news with the remark “Such was God’s will.”Despite these hardships, Wojtyla was an outgoing youth, though always with a serious side. He was a natural lead in school plays and is reported to have helped school friends with their homework without allowing them to copy his. He excelled in school, played soccer, and under his father’s guidance lived a disciplined, routinely religious life.
After graduating as class valedictorian, Wojtyla had one promising year of college life at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków (1938-39). There he completed “Renaissance Psalter,” his first (unpublished) book of poetry, engaged in amateur dramatics, and passed his qualifying exams for further studies in Polish literature. His formal studies ended abruptly when Adolph Hitler’s forces invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. In addition to Jews, professors, priests, and other cultural and political leaders were deported to concentration camps by the Nazis, who considered the Slavs one of the inferior races.
Wojtyla and his father, who was now in poor health, fled with thousands to the east, but after learning that the Russians had also invaded Poland, father and son soon returned to the tiny Kraków apartment they had shared. Wojtyla then continued his studies in the university’s clandestine classes. For the next four years, in order to avoid Nazi arrest and deportation into forced labour, he worked for Solvay, a chemical manufacturer considered by the Nazis to be essential to the war effort. His work, which involved such tasks as breaking rocks in a quarry, laying track, shoveling limestone, setting dynamite charges, and tending machinery, would make him the only pope in modern times to have been a labourer.