Early life and studies
Ciszek was born on November 4, 1904, in the mining town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, to Polish immigrants Mary (Mika) and Martin Ciszek, who had emigrated to the United States in the 1890s. A former gang member, he shocked his family by deciding to become a priest. Ciszek entered the Jesuit novitiate in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1928. The following year, he volunteered to serve as a missionary to Russia, which had become the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution 12 years before. Many religious rights for Soviet residents were curtailed, the religious believers were openly persecuted, and few religious believers had access to the services of a priest. Pope Pius XI made an appeal to priests from around the world to go to Russia as missionaries.
In 1934, Ciszek was sent to Rome to study theology and Russian language, history and liturgy at the Pontifical Russian College (or 'Russicum'). In 1937, he was ordained a priest in the Byzantine Rite in Rome taking the name of Vladimir (see Russian Greek Catholic Church).
In 1938, Ciszek was sent to the Jesuit mission in Albertyn in eastern Poland. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the Soviet Union occupied eastern Poland and forced Ciszek to close his mission. Arriving in Lviv, he realized that it would be very easy for a priest or two to enter the Soviet Union amid the streams of exiles going East. After securing the permission of Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, he crossed the border in 1940 under the assumed identity of Władymyr Łypynski. With two of his fellow Jesuits, he travelled 2400 km (1500 mi) by train to the logging town of Chusovoy, in the Ural Mountains. For one year, he worked as an unskilled logger, while discreetly performing religious ministry at the same time.