JPII’s childhood friend changed Vatican-Jewish relations

Jerzy Kluger, born April 4 1921, died December 31 2011

As Pope, John Paul II is known to have done more than any other pope in history to bring together Catholics and Jews.  

The first pontiff to speak of Judaism as Christianity's "elder brother", he was also the first to condemn anti-Semitism as a sin against God.  John Paul II also created other firsts in relation to Judaism and Catholicism.

He instituted Holocaust commemoration in the Vatican, visited Auschwitz, and made the first official papal visit to a synagogue. JPII was the first pope to ask publicly for God's pardon for the sins of Roman Catholics over the centuries, including those against the Jews. During his papacy, in 1993, diplomatic relations with Israel were established.

These firsts, and John Paul II’s commitment to this cause during decades, owes much to his lifelong friendship with Jerzy Kluger.

A Polish Jew who had lost much of his own family in the Holocaust, Kluger, born on April 4, 1921 in Kraków, was the son of a successful lawyer.  The young Kluger grew up in Wadowice, where he met Karol Wojtyla. It was a friendship across the divide of religion and race, one forged on the football field.

Jurek (Jerzy) and Lolek (Karol) became firm friends, and because there were often not enough Jewish players to field a full team, the future Pope played with Kluger for a Jewish team rather than with his Catholic classmates.

Jerzy remembered later: ‘To be honest, soccer was not his best sport. He was a tremendous walker and loved going into the nearby mountains. He was not bad at table-tennis either.’

World War II put separated the two; Kluger and his father were taken by the Russians and jailed.  The rest of their Kluger family was wiped out in the Holocaust. Kluger eventually joined the Polish Army, fought with the Allies in Egypt and Italy. In Egypt, he met Irene White; they wed in 1944.

Jerzy and Irene Kluger moved to England after the war, and he completed an engineering degree at Nottingham University. Then they moved to Rome to work in the late 1950s.

Some years after, he read a newspaper report that mentioned Karol Wojtyla's name as a bishop expected to attend the Second Vatican Council... and that was when the boyhood friendship turned into a one which would profoundly impact on the course of Vatican-Israel relations.

FULL ARTICLE in The Daily Telegraph, London 

 Jerzy Kluger

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