Stories of growing up with Pope John Paul II

Karol Wojtyla was best known to the world as Pope John Paul II. But as a boy, he had another name: Old Shatterhand, the man who could break down walls with his bare hands: This was the part he would take in the cowboys and Indians game he loved to play with his childhood friend, Jerzy Kluger, a Polish Jew. Kluger would play the noble Chief Winnetou. “The two men were rivals,” explains Kluger in his book “The Pope and I” (Orbis, $26) “but they also respected one another.” 

It’s hard to resist seeing this game as a foreshadowing of the two friends as adults: Kluger, the de facto ancestor of nations and representative of an ancient and long-suffering tribe; and Old Shatterhand, the pope who battered down the Berlin Wall and drove the first cracks into ages-old barriers between the sons of Abraham. 

Growing up

Of course, Winnetou and Shatterhand are fictional, but the long and many-layered friendship between Kluger and the pope (whom Kluger calls “Lolek”) was very real, and so was the pope’s heartfelt and lifelong concern for the Jewish people. In his book, Kluger tells how his friend often called Jews “our older brothers.” Returning that respect, the rabbi in an old Roman Jewish ghetto said, “We Jews are grateful to you Catholics for spreading the idea of the monotheistic God in the world.” 

Blessed Pope John Paul II’s lifelong friend Jerzy Kluger, author of “The Pope and I.”CNS file photo

Kluger, who died Dec. 31 at age 90, and Wojtyla grew up together in Wadowice, Poland. War separated them, and when they reunited, Kluger was an engineer living in Rome. He had been a POW, had fought in Africa and Italy and had lost some family members to Auschwitz. His old friend was archbishop, soon to be pope. Their friendship rekindled quickly, and Kluger soon realized that he was in a unique position to influence history, pushing the Holy See to help legitimize the state of Israel and acting as a consultant on behalf of the Jewish people. 

But Kluger was not antagonistic. He clearly respects the culture and traditions of the Church: He speaks, for instance, of coming upon the pope kneeling in prayer before a statue of Mary after they discussed the possibility of a papal visit to Auschwitz. “Careful not to disturb him, I approached the gate to get a better view of the shrine. There was something in the expression of that statue. It was compassion.” 

The pope’s concern for the Jews was nothing new. Kluger describes how, at age 10, Lolek angrily defended his friend’s right to visit a Catholic church when a parishioner told Kluger to leave because he was a Jew. Lolek said loudly, “Doesn’t she know that Jews and Catholics are all children of the same God?” Then he told his friend, “You can come here whenever you want.”  

Seeking unity

When he became pope, he followed through on that desire for unity. Pope John Paul II famously made many historic inroads in Christian-Jewish relations.  

He was the first pope to visit the Roman synagogue, the first to visit Auschwitz; and he constantly pushed the Church to refine its official statements about the Jews. 

Near the end of his life, he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. His once athletic body was crippled by Parkinson’s, and Kluger sadly remembers “his once-expressive, actor-like face becoming wooden, his voice becoming more and more faint until he could hardly speak.”  

Kluger describes the pain he saw in Lolek’s eyes as he prayed before the Western Wall: “Before the pope backed away from the wall, he reached out and touched it, as if it were the face of a friend he did not want to leave.”  

Of course, the Jews and Catholics have not always enjoyed such a friendship. Kluger struggles mightily to present a balanced picture of the long, often ugly conflict between the two faiths: forced baptisms, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and more modern strife such as the controversy over the canonization of the Jewish Carmelite nun, Edith Stein: Was she martyred for her adopted faith or her ancestral heritage? Kluger strives to make a distinction between actual Church doctrine, and practices that were simply an unfortunate product of their times; and he reminds the reader that Catholics sometimes “unintentionally complicate the matter” with the best of intentions. 

His accounts of controversy are not always accurate. He perpetuates the largely debunked narrative that Maximilian Kolbe (canonized by Pope John Paul in 1982) was an anti-Semite (although he forthrightly admires Kolbe for giving his life for a fellow prisoner at Auschwitz). He also paints with a broad brush when describing the Carmelite convent that was built on the periphery of Auschwitz, saying, “The nuns weren’t concerned with any of this [distress of the survivors]” — but he does illuminate the Jewish opposition, saying, “Some maintained that the idolatrous city cited in the Torah was Auschwitz, where human beings had usurped a right that belonged only to God, the power over life and death. So that place had to remain in ruins, as the law prescribed, and nothing must be allowed to stand there again.” 

Inner battle

Kluger clearly wants to give the Church the benefit of the doubt, but struggles to shake the feeling that anti-Semitism will never be entirely uprooted from within the walls of the Church. It is Archbishop Andrzej Deskur, a close friend of Pope John Paul II’s, who eventually persuades Kluger to work formally and systematically as a mediator between the Vatican and Israel. 

Kluger’s apparent interior conflict is sympathetic, but it causes the narrative to flag badly. He wants to educate the reader on some matters of history and theology. But he chooses the awkward vehicle of a casual conversation with Joseph Lichten, a diplomat who worked for the Anti-Defamation League. These result is startlingly contrived. As they discuss the painful matter of the Church’s history of forced baptisms, Kluger has Lichten remarking, 

“‘Edgardo was seven years old when the news reached the tribunal of the Inquisition in Bologna, which ordered the gendarmes so take him away from his Jewish parents so that he could be raised as a good Christian. The boy was taken to Rome at the behest of the pope, and it was Pius IX himself who cared for him.’ ‘That’s really an incredible story,’ I said earnestly. 

“‘Yeah,’ said Lichten.” 

And again, earlier in the book, Kluger and Lichten chat about the Spanish inquisition over dinner one night, like this: “‘So, no more Jews in Spain or Portugal,’ I said, twisting some fettucine around my fork. ‘More or less,’ Lichten replied, ‘and things weren’t any better in the rest of Europe.’”  

The straight historical passages are also a problem. Some of the information is widely known by even casual students of history, and could have been skipped; other parts are needlessly dense or arcane. 

But other passages are exquisite. One of these is the harrowing account of how the SS officers marched on the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw:  

“Many Jews tried to escape through the labyrinthine sewer system. Games of cat and mouse were played for entire days, until the order came to destroy the Jewish quarter completely. It was now Easter, and that night the ghetto was a sea of flame from one end to the other. … There were so many Jews that the trains could not hold them all, so more than a thousand of them were sentenced on the spot, stripped, and lined up against the wall. The rest were in their underground hiding places, and around them were the scalding walls, the smell of mold, silence, darkness. Not even a candle was lit, to avoid consuming what little air there was.” 

All in all, the book is uneven, but illuminating — and endearing. Kluger seems unable to describe any meeting, no matter how historically significant or dire, without listing what everyone had for dinner, right down to the sauce. The book is peppered with fascinating details of life in Poland prewar and during communist rule. Best of all, it paints a portrait of his dear friend Lolek that is entirely what his millions of devoted admirers imagined: a man of humor and wit, energy and imagination, with a tender heart and an iron will. 

Simcha Fisher is a blogger who writes from New Hampshire.