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Jerzy Kluger, lifelong friend of Pope John Paul, dies at 90

Jerzy Kluger, a childhood friend of Karol Wojtyla, the Polish priest who improved Vatican relations with Jews when he became Pope John Paul II, died in Rome on Dec. 31, 2011 at 90.

"The young Karol Wojtyla learned a lot about Judaism from Kluger," said author Gianfranco Svidercoschi, an aide to the late pope and author of the 1993 book "Letter to a Jewish Friend: The Simple and Extraordinary Story of Pope John Paul II and His Jewish School Friend. "He had a great influence on the pope’s life. The young Wojtyla visited the Kluger home in Wadowice, helped Jerzy with his studies, particularly Latin, and started a friendship that would influence his relations with Jews for the rest of his life.”

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In 1981, while recovering from an assassination attempt, the pope asked Kluger to help him begin a diplomatic effort that culminated in the Vatican formally recognizing Israel in 1993. Kluger has been credited with “playing a behind-the-scenes but key role in the process.”

Kluger was a “link with the pope’s past,” said Eugene Fisher, co-editor of the new book, “The Saint for Shalom: How Pope John Paul II Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.” “Perhaps the most profound change in Christianity was the change brought about in Catholic-Jewish relations.”

Kluger reconnected with then-Archbishop Karol Wojtyla in 1965 in Rome. Until that meeting, each presumed the other had died in the war, Reuters said. Kluger was in Rome’s synagogue in 1986 when John Paul called Jews, "our beloved elder brothers” in what became a historic visit, and was at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial with him in 2000.

"The passing of Jerzy Kluger is both a moment of individual sorrow for the loss of another courageous survivor of the Holocaust, as well as symbolic remembrance for the link with Pope John Paul under whom a revolution in the advancement of Catholic-Jewish relations was realized," said Elan Steinberg vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. "Their childhood friendship was seared by their shared experience of coming under the Nazi yolk in Poland. There can be no question that John Paul’s warmth and gestures to the Jewish people was shaped by his personal witness of Nazi horrors."

Kluger was born in Krakow. His father was the president of the Jewish community and a successful lawyer. He once said one of his earliest memories was "of being chased around the square in their home town in Poland by an irate policeman. They were only 4 or 5 years old and had tried to pluck the policeman’s sword from its sheath while he dozed on a bench."

During World War II, Kluger was sent to Siberian gulag. He was freed after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and he fought against the Axis with free Polish forces in Africa and Europe, culminating in his participation at the climactic military campaign of Monte Cassino outside Rome.

His mother died in Auschwitz, and Kluger stayed in Italy after the war. He studied engineering in Turin, moved to England with a British woman he had met in Egypt during the war and then married, and returned to Italy in the 1960s to work for an import-export company.

Kluger’s friendship with the pope was personal and intimate. According to one article, Kluger’s children were close with the pope, “who permitted them to play with his skullcap.”

In a 2006 article, a reporter for National Catholic Reporter told of a luncheon with Kluger in which he showed the last photo ever taken of John Paul at his dining table, which was with the Klugers. Kluger said that even as a young man, Wojtyla’s promise was evident. "He laughed that his grandmother, for example, whenever she became annoyed, would sometimes point to Wojtyla and ask: ‘Why can’t you be more like him?’"

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org.

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