"I like fiery passion, actually." - Olympus
Question #57569 posted on 05/18/2010 3:01 a.m.

Dear 100 Hour Board,

What did Karol Józef Wojtyła, more commonly known as Pope John Paul II, do for his job when he worked at Solvay Drugs of I.G. Farben Chemical Company and what did Solvay manufacture at that time?

- would like to know

A: Dear would like to know,

Dare I ask why you want to know? For all the readers who are unaware, the prevailing rumor is that Pope John Paul II worked for the Solvay Chemical Works during World War II and was a salesman for them, selling Zyclone-B gas to the Nazis. Solvay was at that time doing business with I.G. Farben, the producers of Zyclone-B. I have put a lot of time into researching this question in an attempt to give you the best, most informed, least biased answer I can in one-hundred hours.

Let's start with what Solvay manufactured during the 1940s. "The story of the Solvay Group began on 15 April 1861, when Ernest Solvay (1838-1922) patented the industrial production of sodium carbonate - also known as soda ash - using common salt, ammonia, carbon dioxide (CO2) and lime." (To see a history of the company, take a look at their timeline.) Sodium carbonate is used to make soap powder, glass, paper, and is used as a catalyst or electrolyte in other common things. From the time it first formed until the 1950s Solvay was experimenting, changing, and learning more about the physics behind sodium carbonate and how it could be manipulated to create new products. It is hard to say exactly what they were working on during the 1940s, and unfortunately the person I e-mailed never did get back to me, however we do know that by the 50s the company was hard at work with plastics. Today the company has two main sectors: chemicals and plastics. They used to be active in the pharmaceuticals industry, but in 2009 they sold their division to another company.

Now what about I.G. Farben, the German chemical company which contributed significantly to the millions of deaths during the Holocaust. The truth is that Solvay and I.G. Farben did work together, but the depth of their business relationship is really unknown at this point. From what I can gather, their main business was probably in pharmaceuticals, but unfortunately their relationship either wasn't too strong, or the information just is not widely available. Whatever the case may be, these two companies did work together, although Solvay is a separate, independent company to this day, whereas I.G. Farben went bankrupt in 2003.

Now that we understand better Solvay's place in history, what do we make of Pope John Paul II working there? (As an aside, I am going to continue calling him "Pope John Paul II" instead of "Karol Józef Wojtyła," since that is the name by which most people know him.) The fact is that facts about his life before the end of World War II are vague at best. Here is what we know. Between 1940 and 1944, or when he was between twenty and twenty-four years old, Pope J.P. II worked in a quarry and then in the Solvay chemical factory. In 1942 he was called to the priesthood, while still working at the quarry. At the end of World War II, in 1945, he attended a major seminary in Krakow, and on November 1, 1946 he was ordained to the priesthood [from the official Vatican press website].

We know for sure that he worked at Solvay between 1942 and 1945, although for how long we don't know. We also know that this job provided him with a work card, protecting him from deportation to a labor camp in German-occupied Poland. The question still remains, what did he actually do there, and that is where the stories get muddled. It is comparable to trying to find out what Joseph Smith's youth was like, in between the time he first had a vision and actually organized the Church. If you have ever looked into more controversial aspects of LDS history then you know half the information out there, whether on the internet or bound up nicely in the library, is going to be anti-Mormon crockery, and the other half is mixed up between biased accounts and things with debatable accuracy. As far as Pope J.P. II is concerned, the most common thing is for people to merely brush over the fact that he worked at Solvay at all. They say he worked there, and that's it. His actual job is hard to come by.

Many people claim that he was directly involved in the selling of Zyclone-B gas to the Nazis. I for one do not agree with this claim. Since there is no definitive evidence either way, keep in mind this is my opinion, but it is an informed one. First of all, I.G. Farben was the company which both produced and sold the gas, not Solvay. Yes, they may have done business together, however it was Farben that had major investments in Zyclone-B. Farben was based out of Berlin and more or less from the beginning had a working contract with the S.S. headquarters. Following that line of logic, why would a young, Polish man who worked for Solvay be a salesman for Farben? The next thing that doesn't follow is that he is generally said to have had a factory job, which it seems to me is very much not a salesman. Now, unfortunately the Vatican hasn't released anything definitive on the subject, but then again neither has Solvay or I.G. Farben. Neither has ever said or shown what work Pope J.P. II did there, which could mean a number of things: they are hiding something, they didn't keep meticulous records on all their workers (which is possible, since it is a known fact that I.G. Farben "employed" slave labor), or something else entirely. Anyway, my point is, there is nothing authoritative to say what he did while working for Solvay. In fact, the most definitive thing I have come across was in the New York Times, where it is said that "he found a laborer's job at the Solvay Chemical Works, where he helped organize a plant cafeteria." Obviously, I would be thrilled if this was accurate, but it is no where confirmed or denied. To me it makes more sense than if he was a salesman, for the reasons already stated.

Obviously your question was merely what did Pope J.P. II do for Solvay Chemicals, and hopefully I made it clear that that is going to remain disputed for a long time. Of course, it is possible that he was involved in something less than savory during World War II - but let's be blunt here, a lot of people did things that they weren't proud of, that under any other circumstances they would have never done or been involved with. I don't think he was off selling Zyclone-B gas for Farben, I think he was legitimately working a laborer's job for Solvay. But beyond that, I don't honestly think people who were salesmen for Farben were doing it because they wanted to contribute to the mass murder of millions of people.

Finally, let me add that there are many biases at play here. There are people who hate the Catholic church and will believe and perpetuate anything to give it a bad name, and there are people who will keep a blind spot to every bad thing the Vatican has condoned in the past. The same is true for any event in history, especially when religion is involved. Take what you read with a grain of salt. And if that doesn't help, keep in mind that Pope John Paul II has done a lot of good since he entered that seminary in 1945. I think the influence he had there will always be infinitely more than the influence he may have had at Solvay.