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Significance of Pope John Paul II's friendship with Jerzy Kluger, who died Saturday, is captured in "Blessing" exhibit

01/04/12

The lifelong Jewish friend of Pope John Paul II, which formed the basis of Xavier’s renowned exhibition on the Pope’s relations with the Jewish people, died on New Year’s Eve in Rome. He was 90.

Jerzy Kluger was born in the same southern Polish town of Wadowice as the late pontiff, born Karol Wojtyla. Kluger was a year younger than the future pope, but the two were boyhood playmates and shared school benches together. Kluger was known by his nickname, Jurek, and Wojtyla by his nickname, Lolek, according to a report by The Jewish Daily Forward.

Their friendship and the prominence of the Jewish community in Wadowice, where a quarter of his classmates were Jewish, deeply influenced Wojtyla. Though he and Kluger lost touch for 27 years, they were reunited after Wojtyla became a bishop and remained close friends into John Paul II’s tenure as pope. Most of Kluger’s family was killed in the Holocaust.

Xavier’s exhibition planners focused on this relationship in organizing the exhibit, “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People,”  which opened at Xavier on May 19, 2005. Since then it has been displayed at 16 additional locations, including the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.

The multimedia exhibit includes photos, video footage, documents and artifacts recording the extraordinary contributions of Pope John Paul II toward improved relations between the Catholic and Jewish faiths. It was created by James Buchanan, director for the Brueggeman Center for Dialogue at Xavier, Rabbi Abie Ingber, founding director for Xavier’s Office of Interfaith Community Engagement, former Department of Theology chairman Bill Madges and Yaffa Eliach, professor and Holocaust survivor.

The team presented the exhibit to John Paul II at the Vatican before he died in April of 2005. Xavier magazine published a story about the presentation in 2005.

John Paul II was the first pope to enter a synagogue, officially visit and recognize the State of Israel, and to formally engage in an act of repentance for the Catholic Church’s historical treatment of Jews. The exhibit draws its name from the Pope's 1993 speech at the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising:

“As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing to the world. This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to first be a blessing to one another.”

Buchanan recalled the months leading up to the exhibit’s opening.

“As we sat in Xavier’s Brueggeman Center night after night into the wee hours creating it, our only thoughts were to fulfill our promise to the Pope that we would open on his 85th birthday, May 18, 2005,” Buchanan said. “At that point we had one venue after Xavier and nothing else. Looking back, I can only feel amazement and gratitude. That it has been seen and impacted the lives of more than a quarter million people, and that we have delivered nearly 50,000 prayers to the Western Wall, seems at times nothing short of a miracle.”

In 2009, Ingber, Madges and Buchanan traveled to Jerusalem’s Western Wall to deliver 31,099 of the prayers gathered during the exhibit’s journey. As promised, the prayers were placed into the wall unread.

"We could never have imagined that the story we told of two young boys from Wadowice would travel the American world and inspire so many to lives of encounter and meaningfulness,” Ingber said. “We are truly honored to have transported the message of Pope John Paul II and Jerzy Kluger about Roman Catholics and the Jewish People for all these years as a fitting memorial tribute to their lives."

Kluger had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease prior to his death. He and his Irish-born wife lived in Rome for decades. The Rome Jewish community said his funeral took place Monday and that he was buried in the city’s Jewish cemetery, according to The Jewish Daily Forward. MSNBC published a story about Kluger’s death on its website.