John Paul II, As His Friends Knew Him

Two new books about John Paul II shed light on the late Pope’s personal life and friendships.

The books about Pope John Paul II are now coming out in a steady flow—and there is some fascinating material here. Jerzy Kluger’s childhood friendship with Karol Wojtyla—they were schoolmates together in Wadowice, spent much time in one another’s homes, played football together—was to have long-lasting results many decades later. The Pope and I (Orbis Books, 2012), the book that Kluger completed just before he died in 2011, six years after his schoolmate’s passing, now tells the full story. And it is one that is well worth reading.

Members of the Kluger family were leading figures in Wadowice’s large Jewish community. Jerzy’s father was a lawyer and had studied at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Jerzy met Karol Woytila in junior school and they became fast friends. The young Kluger learned much Polish history from Karol’s father, who loved to tell them stories of chivalry and honor. There are some rather touching descriptions of small-town life, of the school dance that celebrated the completion of their final exams, and of their discussions about the future and their hopes and plans.

As we know, the future was to be far grimmer than any schoolboy in Poland or elsewhere could have imagined. After a short spell at Warsaw University, where anti-Jewish students beat him up very badly, Kluger returned to Wadowice. His father made arrangements for him to study in Britain, but war intervened—Germany invaded from the West, the Soviet Army from the East, and Poland was doomed. Kluger and his father were caught by the Soviets and transported to the remote Arctic region of the USSR. He never saw his mother, his sister, or his grandmother again—Wadowice came under German control, and they were taken to a concentration camp and perished there. Kluger writes with particularly tender memories of his sister, a clever and scholarly girl who was also an excellent tennis player.

Kluger himself was one of the Poles who, after Hitler attacked Russia, were allowed to join the Polish Army and make their way out of the USSR—he saw action at Monte Cassino and elsewhere. And after the war, he fulfilled his father’s original plan by going to England and studying engineering at Nottingham. He married an English girl and raised two daughters, running a successful business and eventually settling in Rome. Which is where the story takes another extraordinary turn.

In Rome, in the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council was taking place, and Archbishop Karol Wojtyla was among those attending. Kluger realized that this must be the Wojtyla he had known at school, and made contact with the clergy house where the archbishop was staying. And so a new chapter began. There is a moving description of how they met and talked and talked, walking together until it grew dark. It was to be the first of many meetings. Over the next years, Archbishop Wojtyla and Kluger met whenever the former visited Rome on Church business. And then came the day in 1978 when white smoke indicated the election of a new pope—and Archbishop Wojtyla became John Paul II.

As we all know, one of the many great achievements of Blessed John Paul’s remarkable pontificate was the forging of a whole new relationship with the Jewish people. His visit to a synagogue in 1986 was the first since St. Peter’s almost 2,000 years earlier, and it opened the way for new hopes and new possibilities. Through contacts made by Jerzy Kluger, eventually formal diplomatic ties were established between the Vatican and Israel.

The strong personal bonds on which this huge breakthrough rested were deep: Pope John Paul became a friend of Kluger’s wife and daughters, presided at the wedding of Kluger’s granddaughter, shared many meals and long talks with the family. When John Paul went to Israel, praying at the Western Wall and honoring the Holocaust victims commemorated at Yad Vashem, Kluger was a witness and describes it all movingly. These were extraordinary events, and they have a quality of spiritual depth to them which is almost unfathomable: what is being played out in history is not just the healing of old hurts and the fostering of a new era but something more, something in the plan of God, something relating to God’s great designs for the people of the Old Covenant, for whom he has great love.

Jerzy Kluger writes well and with careful attention to detail: all sorts of things bring the book alive, such as the Pope’s formal, old-fashioned Polish when speaking on the telephone—he always asked for “Engineer Jerzy Kluger”—and his excellent memory, which allowed him to recall conversations from years earlier.

What will happen next? The problems in the Middle East—the due rights and obligations of Israel and of the Palestinians—continue to be a source of difficulties and a true and lasting peace seems elusive. We have to commit it all to prayer.

What about the wider issue of the relationship between the Church and the Jews? Here, Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate is important, and in this 50th anniversary year of that great Council its message of goodwill needs to be heeded anew. Alas, there are still anti-Semitic voices to be heard among Catholics—as I found to my disgust just recently at a Catholic event where a couple made horrible anti-Jewish remarks and spoke passionately against Blessed John Paul for having visited a synagogue. There is still work to be done in teaching all Catholics that the Church solemnly condemns all anti-Semitism and specifically denounces the idea that the Jews should be blamed for Christ’s death.

The Kluger/John Paul story, told in this most readable book, makes its own unique contribution to history—a remarkable friendship, stretching across the tragedy of war and into the mysterious designs of Providence, playing out in the drama of an astonishing pontificate presided over by a saint. Like so much else in the life of John Paul, this is hallmarked by a sense of being held very closely and tenderly in God’s hands.

Lino Zani’s book The Secret Life of John Paul (Saint Benedict Press, 2012) has a silly title, which promises a tabloid-journalism series of revelations that, fortunately, it does not deliver. It is, however, a thoroughly good read: the Zani family ran a skiing lodge in the Italian mountains where John Paul came to stay for a brief skiing trip early in his papacy, and thus began a friendship with the family which ripened over the years. Lino Zani writes with particular vividness about the Pope at prayer, and how he seemed so intensely and utterly united with God at such times. John Paul shared with the Zani family a great love of the mountains and of their spectacular beauty. He also relished Mama Zani’s simple but delicious meals, and the welcome that he was given into what was, in addition to being a skiing lodge, a family home steeped in Catholic traditions and strong in affection and loyalty.

There are descriptions of the skiing and the snow, and of the arrangements that had to be made when the Italian Prime Minister joined the group, and so on. There are some coy admissions of the author’s own lapses from good Catholic practice over the years, and some tender recollections of Blessed John Paul’s fatherly advice. But the real poignancy of the book comes at the end, with a rather haunting reference to the extraordinary revelations of the Third Secret of Fatima—that description of a vision of a Pope struggling over a ruined city where many lie dead. I won’t spoil your own reading of the book by too much detail on this, but given the very specific links between the Italian mountains, the battles of 1917, and Blessed John Paul’s own brush with death—well, let’s just say it’s thought-provoking.

You will, in any case, enjoy this book. And it will bring back memories of a much-loved pope who combined a zeal for souls with great intellectual activity, and who also, according to Zani, “skiied like a swallow” and was wonderful company.


The Pope and I.  Jerzy Kluger. Orbis Books, New York, 2012

The Secret Life of John Paul II. Lino Zani. Saint Benedict Press, North Carolina, 2012

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About Joanna Bogle 77 Articles
Joanna Bogle is a journalist in the United Kingdom. Her book Newman’s London is published by Gracewing Books.