Monday, May 14, 2012

Jerzy Kluger's "The Pope and I." A Review

The Pope and I by Jerzy Kluger. Source
Available now on Amazon. Buy here.

Anyone with a serious interest in Pope John Paul II, Polish-Jewish, and Christian-Jewish relations will want to read "The Pope and I: How the Lifelong Friendship between a Polish Jew and John Paul II Advanced Jewish-Christian Relations" by Jerzy Kluger. Kluger was Karol Wojtyla's childhood friend and adult confidante and colleague in changing Christian-Jewish relations.

Popular stereotypes of Poland in the interwar period (1918-1939) presume an anti-Semitic hellhole of regular pogroms where the Holocaust was a teleological inevitability. Anyone who has met a Jewish person who lived in interwar Poland, or who has read numerous memoirs, knows that this is not the case. Polish-Jewish relations are complicated. "The Pope and I" reflects this, and the tremendous intimacy of the Polish-Jewish relationship, as well.

Perhaps the intimacy and complication of Polish-Jewish relations are no better captured than in one line from the book. Pope John Paul II visited Israel. He said to Kluger, his childhood friend, "I have a strong desire to return to the Holy Land…There were so many Polish Jews there. It was like being home." Or this – when Kluger met Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, he reported, "What certainly put me at ease was the fact that I could speak to Shamir in Polish." Or this – Kluger's Uncle Wiktor lived with Countess Isabella, a Polish Catholic noblewoman.

Jerzy (Jurek) and Karol (Lolek) grew up in interwar Poland. Anti-Semitism in inter-war Poland was part of a worldwide upswing. Memoirists recount heartbreaking tales of economic boycotts, of being beaten up at universities and insulted in public. These incidents are reported more as shocking straws in the wind than as expected constants of daily life.

Polish Catholics who were not anti-Semites, along with their Jewish friends, struggled with this newly potent force. A student caught reading the banned "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" in Jurek's middle school was sent to the principal, and the principal "put strict measures in place." In another incident, anti-Semitic students announced that Jews were a "race" in conflict with Poles. Kluger looked for, and saw, disapproval on other Polish students' faces. A Polish Catholic principal helped Jewish students to circumvent quotas limiting numbers of Jewish students admitted to university.

Catholics and Jews together enjoyed a famous singer's performance in a synagogue: "there was a pure spirit of togetherness in that crowd, the mutual respect between the two communities that seemed to brook no exceptions in Wadowice." As Kluger puts it, "In Wadowice, news of the spread of anti-Semitism in Poland was less troubling because it seemed to come from so far away. Apart from an occasional flare-up, relations between Jewish and Catholic students were relaxed."

At a time when eighty percent of Polish Jews identified Yiddish as their first language, Kluger's father said "We're Polish, so we speak Polish." His father fought in Pilsudski's legions, when they were still clandestine, in order to liberate Poland. Kluger's mother made free lunches for poor children at the school. Most of these children were not Jews. Decades later, Kluger would meet one of his former Polish classmates at the Vatican. This son of a poor miner said to Kluger, "I never got a chance to thank her. God bless your mother" for the food he remembered her providing him.

As a small boy, Jurek was hypnotized by Lolek's father's accounts of Polish heroism: "We saw in our imaginations the vast plains of Poland being torn apart by the invading armies; from the captain's unique storytelling gift, we felt the warmth of the soldiers' bodies, we saw the unflinching Cossack fighters and the resigned determination in the eyes of the Turks, we heard the war cry of the Swedes, we smelled the putrid odor of defeat, and we saw the lifeless bodies after the frenzy of the battle."

There are wonderfully intimate moments that readers will not encounter elsewhere. In a childhood prank, Jurek and Lolek decided to test a sleeping soldier's sword to see if it is real. Jurek lingers over a description of his sister, Tesia. The reader might wonder why. After all, she is not an historical personage like John Paul II. This is why – Jurek's beloved sister, along with other family members, perished in the Holocaust. Kluger describes Tesia in such detail in his book as a way of commemorating her, and of bringing home to the reader the genocide of Poland's Jews.

One day, Jurek was looking for Lolek; he was told to find him in church. Jurek entered the church and an uncharitable woman told Jurek he should not be in a Catholic church. Lolek, just ten years old at the time, was outraged. "Jews and Catholics are all children of the same God!" Lolek said to the woman.

Lolek's rejection of anti-Semitism was very much part of his Polish nationalism. "Polish authors celebrated …Catholicism and Judaism." Lolek cited Pan Taduesz, the national epic poem, and its sympathetic treatment of Jankiel, a Jewish character. "Lolek quoted Andrzej Towianski, …referring to the Jews as older brothers." This concept of Jews as Christians' "older brothers" would become key to the future pope.

At university, members of the anti-Semitic National Democracy Party beat Jurek unconscious. Jurek's father removed him. The departure was so crushing that as his train was leaving Warsaw, Jurek burst into tears. Shortly after this, Jurek's father received a notice: He must be ready to fight, and of course, die, for Poland if and when Germany attacks. The irony is obvious.

Kluger lived through the Nazi blitzkrieg of Poland. He describes the German military unleashing its might on unarmed civilians. He evacuated east, where Soviets place him, his father, and 1.5 million other Poles in cattle cars. He was sent to a prison camp.

"The soldiers of the Red Army had a unique method for determining when it was too cold to work: one of them would spit, and if it froze fast enough … the prisoners had a day off." Kluger's gums bled; his teeth fell out. He struggled to rescue his feet from frostbite. The Anders amnesty arrived: Poles were let go so that they could fight the Nazis. While traveling to the front, thieves whom Kluger senior, a lawyer, had defended, protected the wayfarers. When Jerzy said goodbye to his father before reporting to the front, his final words, which bring tears to his father's eyes, were, "I promise I'm going to become a Polish officer!"

Kluger's father was appointed as a judge by the Polish military, and his cousin Adas joined the Armia Krajowa, or Home Army.

Kluger wondered about the fate of his sister Tesia and other family members back in Poland. He was slow to realize the truth. "All of the prewar rumors about Nazi anti-Semitism were, tragically, being proven true." Even as he says this, his friends insist to him that his family members are "fine" in a Nazi-created ghetto. One of his friends attempt to comfort Kluger – by singing the Polish national anthem. Eventually Kluger would discover that his family members were murdered in Auschwitz. His uncle Wiktor shot himself; his companion, Countess Isabella, jumped to her death.

Similarly, other Poles learned that other dark rumors were true. Kurt Rosenberg's father had been a captain in the Polish Army. "Like me, Kurt had no idea what happened to his family … But a horrible rumor had been going around for some time about the Polish officers who had been captured by the Russians—that they had been slaughtered in a forest near Katyn."

Kluger witnessed the huge toll Polish soldiers paid to drive the Germans off Monte Cassino: "I was walking amid an ocean of corpses…the many lives that had been lost made me think about the stories of Captain Wojtyla, Lolek's father. The bodies of the Polish soldiers lying in their own blood seemed to be those of all the other wars that our country had fought over the centuries for the sake of its freedom. I did what came naturally: I wept."

After the war, Kluger lived in Italy. He learned of a Polish bishop named Karol Wojtyla. Kluger found a phone number, and called. Within hours, he was reunited with the childhood friend he had not seen in decades. At their reunion, Wojtyla was so eager he almost fell over. He adjured Kluger to refer to him by his old childhood nickname, "Lolek." Wojtyla asked Kluger, you never returned to Poland? Kluger replied, "I go back every night, when I fall asleep."

Kluger describes a miraculous gift the pope gives him: Kluger's bilingual, Hebrew-Polish prayer book, the very book he had used as a child, complete with his own notes and a caricature of the rabbi. A neighbor, Mrs. Szczepanska, had been given the book by Kluger's mother before the Nazis murdered her. Mrs. Szczepanska preserved it, and then gave it to Wojtyla, to give to Kluger.

After Wojtyla was elected pope, he summoned Kluger. Headlines read: "Polish pope grants first audience to a Jew."

Kluger returned to Poland. Hearing voices singing in Polish "made me nostalgic for that heaven, that hell, from which I'd long stayed away." He met Cardinal Wyszynski, about whom he reports, "When he met a group of Jewish students who, after the 1968 uprisings, were forced to leave Poland, Wyszynski told them emotionally that he would pray every day for their return to the country."

The book goes off the track in chapter ten, "Two Thousand Years of Hostility." This chapter offers ADL representative Jozef Lichten's version of Christian-Jewish relations, Polish-Jewish relations, and Nazism.

Lichten insists that murderous hatred of Jews is rooted in Christian scripture. No other causative factor is mentioned. No other reading of Christian scripture is offered. The road to understanding Nazism is to immerse oneself in Christian scripture, while simultaneously ignoring Nazi writings justifying Nazi actions in agreement with Nazi ethics – writings that insist on the ultimate obliteration of Christianity as a Nazi goal. Kluger makes explicit his twinning of Christianity and Nazism: he imagines life under a medieval pope who ordered Jews to wear a distinctive badge, and relates that to Nazis carrying out the Holocaust, and he quotes a fascist, "the fascists were simply following the Jesuits, who were even more severe toward the Jewish people."

Muslims treat Jews better. When Christians gain power, Jews are murdered en masse. The Spanish Inquisition and blood libel are representational of Christian-Jewish relations. The only reason Jews became money-lenders was because Catholics pressured them to do so; for example, Jews always and everywhere in Christian countries were prohibited from owning land. Only in recent days have any Christians opposed anti-Semitism. Auschwitz martyr Maximilian Kolbe was an anti-Semite. Jews had good reason for fearing a Polish pope. Later in the book, Kluger states twice that the Carmelite nuns who moved into a theater near Auschwitz didn't care about the horrific memories the place held for Jews.

This narrative implies, but does not state, that Jews were Nazism's only victims. Not mentioned: Poles, Auschwitz's first inmates, Soviets, the first to be murdered with Zyklon B, handicapped people, the first and last to be mass murdered.

Lichten's, and, by extension, this book's theories are deeply flawed. Just one example: the book's description of Maximilian Kolbe bears no relation to that of the team of two scholars, Catholic Daniel Schlafly and Jewish Warren Greene, who investigated the slurs on Kolbe, or of Jewish Auschwitz inmate Sigmund Gorson, who testified that he would love Kolbe till the last moments of his life.

In the next chapter, Kluger offers a skewed version of Jewish history in Poland. "Because they were good at business and commerce, the Polish princes were generous toward them," he reports, a sentence that belittles the genuine commitment to the free exercise of religion expressed by Poles. In this history, Catholicism is responsible for anti-Semitism, "the church solidly established its presence" and priests "sparked popular uprisings." Poles were "jealous" of Jewish success. Not one reputable scholar of Polish-Jewish relations who would endorse this chapter as historically representational.

Kluger takes a similarly unfortunate approach to Israel and the Middle East. He summarizes history there in a way that many will find selective and objectionable. It isn't necessary for Kluger to do this. Rather, he should have focused on his area of expertise, what we are all curious about – what it was like to be best friends with one of the most powerful people in the world, the pope who recognized the state of Israel.

Jerzy Kluger is an historical figure, and his understanding of Christian-Jewish and Polish-Jewish relations are important. What this book needs is not a deletion of Kluger's take on history, but an introduction by a scholar who understands the stereotypes of Poles that the reader will bring to the work, and that educates the reader about genuine history. The publisher did not provide that introduction. One can understand why. Polonia is not doing the work it needs to do to take on the Bieganski, Brute Polak Stereotype. That work is outlined in a series of blog posts on the Crisis in Polonia Leadership, Organization, and Vision.

A final note. "The Pope and I" reminded me of another book, Edward Herzbaum's "Lost Between Worlds." Herzbaum lived much of the same wartime history as Kluger. Herzbaum was also a Polish Jew who witnessed the Nazi blitzkrieg, evacuated east, was imprisoned by the Soviets, freed in the Anders amnesty, and fought at Monte Cassino. Herzbaum mentioned meeting Jerzy Kluger in his diary. With all due respect to Jerzy Kluger, of the two, Herzbaum is the superior writer. Readers interested in "The Pope and I" should also give "Lost Between Worlds" a read.


  1. Your point about pre-WWII Poland not being a unilateral anti-Semitic hellhole is absolutely correct. In fact, believe it or not, did you know that there were Polish Jews who wrote about personally experiencing NO anti-Semitism in pre-WWII Poland? To see a list of these authors, and to be taken to my reviews of these authors, please click on my name specifically at this posting.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Jan Peczkis I had a look at the material to which you link. I find it unnecessarily inflammatory. I deleted it

  4. OK. This is your blog, and I respect your decision.

    Perhaps your readers might be interested in an alternative, to the view presented by Pope John Paul II, on Polish-Jewish dialogue. It comes from a Jewish convert to the Catholic faith. Please click on my name in this specific posting.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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