Page 10, 4th November 1994

4th November 1994
Page 10
Page 10, 4th November 1994 — CHARTERHOUSE CHRONICLE

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Locations: Rome, Wadowice, Warsaw


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How young Karol Wojtyla made a Jewish friend for life

JERZY KLUGER WAS at junior and grammar school with Karol Wojtyla in their home town of Wadowice. They parted company in the summer of 1938 when Jerzy (known familiarly as Jurek) left to study engineering in Warsaw, while Karol (known as Lolek) set off to Krakow to study Polish literature.

They had no further contact until November 1965 during the final session of Vatican H. By this time Kluger was living in Rome and wanted to forget Poland where most of his family had perished. But his attention was drawn to the fact that someone called Karol Wojtyla had made a speech at the Council.

He did not know that Wojtyla had become a priest. But he remembered him well enough as a boy: "There was something special about Lolek. He was always first in the class, in the theatre, the first in everything. If he had gone into General Motors, he would have become chairman."

Yet he didn't seem to want to be a priest as a boy. When the Archbishop of Krakow, Adam Sapieha, visited the school, he was disappointed that young Karol wanted to study literature and philosophy rather than theology.

But he was very religious. What clinched recognition was the memory of Wojtyla's look in the school-leaving photo: "He had a strange ironic look about him. But he always had that ironic look."

Kluger recognised that look after twenty-seven years. He phoned the Polish College, and then walked along the banks of the Tiber with his old school-friend. Nothing strange about that reunion. Except that it was between a Christian and Jew. "One day", the Archbishop of Krakow told him, "all Jews and Christians will be able to meet in this fashion."

Wadowice was a markettown of 10,000 inhabitants of whom 2,000 were Jews. Wilhelm Kluger was a prosperous lawyer.

Karol's life was already overshadowed by tragedy. He lost a sister before he was born. His mother, Emilia, died in 1929, when he was nine. The next year he proudly went to the Jagiellonian University in Krakow for the degree ceremony of his brother Edmund, a doctor in Bielski, soon to die of scarlet fever.

His father, an officer first in the Austrian and then the Polish army, took charge. Known invariably as "the Captain", he had grizzled hair, a moustache and a keen sense of duty. He taught his son to swim, to study and to pray.

In the summer the boys swam in the Skawa river, though the water was shallow and cold. In the winter they met at the Venice bar, where the tennis court flooded over and they played a rudimentary form of ice-hockey. One day Lolek's eyebrow was split open by a carelessly wielded hockey-stick. Blood flowed.

As they grew up, they ventured further afield. To Lysa Gora, two miles away, where there was a good ski slope. Or to the mountain of Leskowiec, which rose to almost a thousand meters, and where the wolves roamed.

There were only six cars in Wadowice. One of them belonged to the family of the Stanislaw Bonas. Their stables also had 200 horses. They were the richest people in town. Teofil Bojes, son of a miner, was the poorest.

Some were politically committed, like Zdislaw Bernas, the school socialist. Some preferred sport, others girls. Apart from Kluger, there were two other Jewish boys in the class: the exceptionally strong Zygmunt Selinger, who helped his father load sacks of flour; and Leopold Zweig, a bad student, a great smoker and womaniser, but above all the best footballer in town.

When they played soccer, which was daily, they split up into two teams to save time. It was Catholics vs Jews. Sometimes they got heated with intentional fouls and shin-hacking. Cries of "get the Jew!" could be heard. As goalkeeper, Lolek was less involved.

There were at the school a few anti-semites, including an "intellectual" who accused the Jews of being the main force behind the Bolshevik revolution.

Matters got worse after the death of Marshal Pilsudski. In 1938 Ginka Beer, already studying medicine in Krakow, left for Palestine.

She lived in the same block as Karol and, two years older, was his first teacher in the drama club. Kluger describes her as "a Jewish girl with stupendous black eyes and hair, tall, slender and a fine actress."

In the summer of 1938 there was a tennis party at Stanislaw Bonas' villa. They began discussing a recent book by Antoni Slomimski. It was satire, but it was frightening. In it a dictator, Reitlich (more or less an anagram for Hitler) orders his army to raze Warsaw to the ground.

Only two people are left alive: a boy and a halfmadman. Slominski had also written of Jews and Poles, "Two peoples fed by the same suffering, the two saddest peoples on this earth."

It can't happen here, they said, quoting Wyspianski's famous poem: "Let war break out all over the world/So long as the Polish countryside remains peaceful, quiet." But what about Austria? What was the Anschluss but an entire people handing itself tamely over to the German Reich?

It can't happen here. But one night in the Rynek or market-square of Wadowice gangs of youths picketed all Jewish shops and offices to stop the Catholics using them. They smashed a few windows. None of them were local.

Next morning the history teacher, Gebhardt, grimfaced, told his class: "I hope none of you were in the square last night among the hooligans. I am speaking to you not as a history teacher but as a Pole. What happened last night has nothing to do with the tradition of our fatherland."

And the history teacher quoted Adam Michiewicz's manifesto of 1848 intended to be a sketch for the constitution of independent Slav states: "In the nation everyone is a citizen. All citizens are equal before the law and the administration." He added: "To the Jew, our elder brother, esteem and help on his path towards eternal welfare, and in all matters equal rights..."

Pope John Paul II used similar language when he became the first Pope in history to visit the Rome synagogue.

Kluger's memoir, ghosted for him by the Italian journalist, Gian Franco Svidercoschi, presents a rather goody-goody view of young Karol, always top of the class. But he did good impersonations of unpopular teachers.

He would never cheat or pass on whispered information in exams. However, in one examination, when Karol was sitting at the desk in front of his, he moved aside enough for Kluger to be able to see his translation and copy it down.

Karol founded the Abstinents' Club (they neither smoked nor drank). The Piotrowski twins responded by forming the Pleasureseekers Club.

But he relented at the endof-school ball, held in Komers, the civil service club, the most elegant place in Wadowice. There was a Polish orchestra playing mazurkas, waltzes and foxtrots.

The students had prepared for this great event by learning to dance and pomading their hair, but they lost out at first to the young and dashing army officers. The Pleasure-seekers knocked back vodka and smoked ostentatiously. It was the end of an era for doomed Poland, barely twenty years old.

Then two of them plucked up enough courage to invite the girls to dance. That broke the ice. Lolek danced with Halina Krolokiewicz, daughter of his headmaster. They had acted together and would do so again in the rhapsodic theatre directed by Mieczyslav Korlarcyk, also from Wadowice. Their names were linked. She was present at his ordination on 1 November, 1946.

In the meantime there was a war. On the day war broke out, Karol was serving Fr Figlewicz' Mass in Krakow cathedral. The sirens began to sound, there was sounds of anti-aircraft fire, the Mass was hurriedly brought to a conclusion.

His first thought was for his father, now very fragile. They had to escape .. eastwards. They set off along the road to Tarnow, along with half the population of Krakow and peasants desperately driving their cows.

Karol was supporting his father, who couldn't go on. He cadged a lift for him on a military lorry, so the old man sat among the ammunition boxes.

Kluger and his father, the lawyer, were on the same road to Tarnov, trying to obey the order to rejoin their regiments. But the army had been routed. On 17 September, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact went into effect, and the Red Army invaded Poland from the East.

This was where their paths diverged. Kluger and his father kept going east and reached Lwow. In June 1940 they were taken prisoner and sent log-chopping to Siberia at temperatures of below 40 degrees.

It took "Operation Barbarossa" Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union for them to be allowed to leave and rejoin, after many adventures, the Polish army in exile. Kluger fought at Monte Cassino.

That could have been Karol's fate. But he had returned to Krakow with his father. The long dark night of occupation began. His father died on 18 February, 1941. Henceforward he was utterly alone, a man without a family.

Kluger did not see Wadowice again for 50 years. He had no desire to return. On a foggy November day in 1939, the Wadowice synagogue had been blown up. Worse followed: the Kluger house on Zatorska Street became the Gestapo HQ. What remained of his family perished in Auschwitz.

He went back on 9 May, 1989, for the unveiling of a plaque marking the site of the Wadowice synagogue. He read out a letter from his friend Lolek. He recalled his old school friends and the long lines of Jews making their way to the Synagogue for festivals.

He wrote: "If you are able to go to Wadowice, tell all who are gathered there how much I venerate the memory of their so cruelly killed coreligionists and compatriots, and also of this place of worship which the invaders destroyed."

As he said in Warsaw in 1991, "I belong to that generation for whom co habitation with the Jews was a fact of life." It has marked him. t

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