Jerzy Kluger, a Polish-born Jew who was a lifetime friend and childhood playmate of the late Pope John Paul II and who lost much of his family to Nazi death camps, has died in a Rome clinic, his widow said Monday. He was 90.
Irene Kluger told The Associated Press that her husband died on Dec. 31 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for three years and was buried Monday. The couple lived in Rome for decades, but at John Paul’s urging, Kluger, a World War II veteran, occasionally returned to visit Wadowice, the southern Polish town where the two spent their boyhoods, his widow said.
Kluger, a year younger than John Paul, who died in 2005, was one of the last living childhood friends of the late pontiff. He was 5 when he met Karol Wojtyla, who would become a priest two decades later in his predominantly Catholic homeland, and eventually Krakow’s cardinal, before being elected as history’s only Polish-born pontiff in 1978.
The two — Kluger known by his nickname Jurek and the future pope known as Lolek — played soccer, shared school benches and lived in houses across a square in Wadowice. Kluger also recalled daring swims with the young Wojtyla in the Skawa River during the warmer months. In winter, the two also hiked for hours to the top of the local mountain to ski.
Upon John Paul’s death, Kluger said the pope always had a passion for social justice.
“Even when he was a young boy, he would already show great concern for social equality, especially for the Jews,” Kluger told the AP. “This was very important to him from a very early age.”
John Paul’s landmark efforts to improve Vatican-Jewish relations, including a historic visit to Rome’s main synagogue, were a legacy of his 26-year papacy.