JERZY KLUGER, The Pope and I. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis press, 2012. pp. 251. ISBN 978 1 57075 970 3. Reviewed by Richard RYMARZ, St Joseph’s College, University of Alberta, Edmonton Alberta, T6G 2J5.
This is a fascinating book centred on the relationship between the author and Karol Wojtyla. It gives a vivid account of prewar Poland, a country that was re-establishing its identity following partition and more than a century of foreign domination. The Wadowice of Kluger’s youth is a world long gone. After meeting Wojtyla in his first year of elementary school they become inseparable in class except for the two hours a week dedicated to religious instruction. As well, they are constant companions after school and at weekends. The author gives great insight into both households and their intertwined lives. The great theme of the book is introduced here, namely, the close bond between a Jew and a Catholic. Kluger’s family were well-established and wealthy. His father was a lawyer and president of the Jewish community of Wadowice. Wojtyla’s circumstances were different. He lived a dignified and modest life with his widowed father who was supported by a military pension.
Life in Wadowice, a small town near Krakow on the edge of the Carpathians, is somewhat idyllic. Here the community revolves around the rynek or town square. It is a world where two boys can spend hours reading books on a kitchen table bathed in light from a window. The window faced the local Church where there was a sundial with the inscription, tempus fugit, eternitas manet (time flies, eternity remains). This image speaks volumes. At the same time Jewish life in Wadowice is not that of the shtetl. Kluger’s family and others in the town are polonized. They do not speak Yiddish in the home, his father fought with Pilsudski and they see themselves as citizens of Poland. Hanging over the early narrative is the grim and inevitable feeling that a terrible future awaits. This is prefigured when Kluger moves to Warsaw to study. In the metropolis he senses that, “something is changing”. In the capital the mood is turning ugly as the country is gripped by a justified dread about the rise of a madly imperialistic and aggressive Germany. In September 1939 the maelstrom strikes as Nazi forces invade Poland followed some weeks later by Soviet forces from the East.
Kluger flees the German advance and arrives in Lwov now under Soviet rule. After arrest and deportation to the East he joins the army of General Anders, made up of Polish deportees. This group eventually joined the British forces fighting in North Africa and then onto the Italian peninsula. After the war Kluger remained in Italy. Poland was gone but not forgotten and the book details the ongoing contact between the two friends leading up to the election of Wojtyla as pope in 1978. The book also contains Kluger's account of his life in Rome, his overview of Polish Jewish relationships and his views on political events such as the situation in the Middle East. These offer a perspective on the author’s attitude and outlook. The real value of the book, in my view, is the first part and its captivating glimpse into a world that was forever destroyed by the Holocaust.