Jerzy Kluger, the lifelong friend of Pope John Paul II died in Rome on December 31. He was 90 years old.
Born in Poland in 1921, Kluger was eleven months younger than Karol Wojtyla – who would eventually become Pope John Paul II. The two friends attended the same schools in Wadowice, Poland, from the age of five and spent much of their childhood together. Both were avid soccer players. When Poland was invaded in 1939, the Jewish community in Wadowice was put into a ghetto, and their synagogue destroyed. Kluger entered the Polish army while Wojtyla studied secretly for the Catholic priesthood. Both men would lose loved ones during the war.
Kluger and his family eventually settled in Rome. And it was during the Second Vatican Council, when the future Pope came to Rome in 1962 as an auxiliary bishop of Krakow, Poland, Wojtyla and Kluger were reunited. Renewing their friendship, the two kept in close contact. Kluger was a frequent guest at the Vatican after the Pope was elected in 1978. Eventually, the Wadowice synagogue was rebuilt and they both attended the opening service.
Writing in book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the Pope wrote about his friendship with Kluger while explaining why he had made Catholic-Jewish relations a priority during his pontificate. Pope John Paul II said the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the shared traditions of Christians and Jews reflects the personal experience of many people, including his own “from the very first years of my life in my hometown. I remember, above all, the Wadowice elementary school, where at least a fourth of the pupils in my class were Jewish.” He added, “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.” .
An account of their friendship is also told in Letters to a Jewish Friend, by Gian Franco Svidercoschi published in 1994.