Jerzy Kluger, John Paul’s Jewish Confidant, Dies at 90
Mr. Kluger, a boyhood friend from Poland, helped a determined pope forge new ties between religions.
For a half-century, Jerzy Kluger refused to set foot in Poland, where most of his family, including his mother and sister, had died in Nazi death camps. Then, in 1989, an old friend begged him to do an errand.
The friend was Pope John Paul II, and he asked Mr. Kluger — a Jew and a businessman who died on Dec. 31 at 90 — to take a letter to Wadowice, the town in southern Poland where both men had grown up. John Paul wanted to bless a plaque that was to be placed where the town’s synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis, had stood. Mr. Kluger, after hard thought, agree Traveling from his home in Rome, he arrived to attend the plaque’s dedication in Wadowice and, speaking to a crowd, read a letter bearing a papal seal that had not been used on a personal document in 400 years.
“That trip was not easy for him,” John Paul wrote.
It was not the only task Mr. Kluger did for the pope. More than a trusted friend who played table tennis with John Paul, took long walks with him and traded stories of the old days, Mr. Kluger was a sounding board and a go-between for him as the pope pushed the Roman Catholic Church to heal relations with Jews.
When John Paul was recovering from an assassination attempt in 1981, he asked Mr. Kluger to help the Vatican explore the possibility of opening, for the first time, diplomatic relations with Israel. Mr. Kluger set up meetings and arranged for the pope to send Jewish New Year’s greetings to Israel’s president. Israel’s prime minister, Menachem Begin, used Mr. Kluger as a channel to Rome. In 1994, those ties were established, ending centuries of Catholic-Jewish estrangement.
Mr. Kluger became the pope’s confidant as well on Jewish sensibilities, and he was not afraid to disagree with his friend. He was quoted as being sharply critical when the pope met the Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat.
Mr. Kluger’s death, in Rome, was announced by the archbishop of Krakow, Poland. He had been treated for Alzheimer’s disease, his wife, Irene, told The Associated Press.
Mr. Kluger, who was called Jurek as a boy, met John Paul, then Karol Wojtyla and nicknamed Lolek, before they were 5. They skied, hiked and played sports together; young Karol played goalie on Wadowice’s Jewish soccer team. They helped each other with homework, made devilish fun of teachers and visited each other’s homes almost daily. More important, they entered each other’s places of worship in the shared belief that every person is a child of God. Mr. Kluger would later pray with cardinals.
Not that Wadowice was free of prejudice in the 1920s. In his 1997 book, “Man of the Century: The Life and Times of John Paul II,” Jonathan Kwitny wrote that the cry “Get the Jew!” was sometimes heard on the town’s soccer field. Catholic leaders advocated boycotts of Jewish businesses. Anti-Jewish comments were common enough that Mr. Kluger remembered the fierceness with which the future pope denounced them.
John Paul went on to cite his early friendships with Mr. Kluger and other Jews as the wellspring of his efforts to improve Catholic-Jewish relations. The first pope to visit a synagogue, he repudiated the ancient idea that Jews had killed Jesus, and he affirmed that the Christian revelation had grown from Jewish Scripture. He called Jews “our elder brothers.”
After John Paul became pope in 1978, he granted his first audience to Mr. Kluger and his family.
“Anti-Semitism,” the pope wrote in 1994, “is a great sin against humanity.”
Jerzy Kluger was born in Krakow in 1921. He grew up in Wadowice, then a town of 10,000 Catholics and 2,000 Jews. His father, Wilhelm, a prosperous lawyer and the president of the Jewish community, mixed Jewish and secular identities. He was religiously observant, lighting Sabbath candles and walking to the synagogue. But he refused to let his family speak Yiddish and sent his children to public, not religious, schools.
Karol Wojtyla enjoyed listening to Wilhelm’s string quartet, composed of two Catholics and two Jews. The young Mr. Kluger loved to hear his friend’s father tell tales of Polish kings and castles in front of his coal-fired stove. He did not love his grandmother’s repeated question: “Why can’t you be more like Lolek?”
World War II destroyed this world. Jerzy and Wilhelm were captured by the Russians, then fought with the Allies. John Paul risked his life attending an underground seminary as priests he admired were killed with the Jews. The friends lost touch.
Mr. Kluger studied engineering in England; married Irene White, a Catholic; and settled in Rome. In 1965, he heard a news report about a Polish archbishop named Wojtyla speaking at the Second Vatican Council. He left a phone message, but thought an archbishop was too important to respond. Lolek called right back.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Kluger is survived by his daughter, Linda Kluger; a granddaughter; and two great-grandchildren. His granddaughter was baptized by the pope.
Mr. Kluger was with John Paul at important moments. In 1994, he stood next to him at the ceremony welcoming the first Israeli ambassador to the Holy See. Before his appendectomy in 1996, the pope told the nursing staff that he had one more task before his surgery: “I must write Jurek.” The last picture taken of the pope dining before his death in 2005 was with Mr. Kluger. Both hard of hearing, they shouted at each other.
Mr. Kluger said his renewed friendship with his boyhood chum had changed his life. “I became somebody,” he said. “I was nobody before.”