Jerzy Kluger, the lifelong Jewish friend of Pope John Paul II, died at the age of 90 on Jan. 2 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for several years.
Although born in the southern Polish city of Krakow, Kluger grew up in the nearby town of Wadowice, where his father was a lawyer and prominent leader of the local Jewish community.
Wadowice was also the hometown of the future Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla.
The two boys lived across from each other on the town’s main square. They became great childhood friends and would always refer to each other by their nicknames. Jerzy was “Jurek” and Karol was “Lolek.”
The two also went to school together and would often help each other with homework. Outside of academic pursuits, the two boys loved to play soccer as well as go hiking and swimming in the surrounding countryside when the weather permitted.
Kluger lost his immediate family during the Nazi persecution of World War II. His grandmother died in the death camp at Belzec in Poland while his sister and mother died at Auschwitz.
After being imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp, he joined the free Polish army and fought for the Allies in Egypt and Italy. It was here he eventually settled, in Rome, after completing a degree in engineering at the University of Nottingham in England.
Although the two men lost touch during the war years, they were brought back together when the then Bishop Wojtyla of Krakow attended the Second Vatican Council in Rome in 1962.
They remained friends until the Pope John Paul’s death in 2005. In fact, his first private audience upon becoming Pope in 1978 was reserved for the Kluger family.
It has often been reported that Kluger was key informal adviser to the Pope on Jewish matters and helped smooth the path that led to the Vatican establishing formal diplomatic relations with Israel in 1993.
In his 1994 book, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” Pope John Paul explained how his upbringing in Wadowice had made him more aware as Pope of the need for improved Jewish-Catholic relations.
He recalled his elementary school where “at least a fourth of the pupils were Jewish. I should mention my friendship at school with one of them, Jerzy Kluger – a friendship that has lasted from my school days to the present.”