In October 1978, Karol Wojtyla, Polish Archbishop of Krakow, became Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years. He had a mission to improve the Catholic Church’s relations with Judaism, Islam, and the Anglican Communion. Only days after the election, he granted Jerzy Kluger, a virtually unknown Jewish businessman, the privilege of first audience at the Vatican. Jerzy was overwhelmed, but not surprised. When they were children, Karol and Jerzy were best friends, known then as Lolek and Jurek. For the pope, this union of Catholic and Jewish faiths was a profound symbol of things to come. It was also a personal gesture that reflected a remarkable bond between the two men.
The Hidden Pope is the story of that relationship, from their simple boyhood in the small town of Wadowice in southern Poland to their separation at the beginning of World War II and their survival under Nazi occupation and Soviet tyranny. The reunion almost thirty years later—after Jerzy lost his family in the Holocaust and spent years in Stalinist labor camps—would not only deepen a friendship, but also afford Jerzy a unique perspective on papal intrigue and policies when he was eventually appointed diplomat between the Vatican and Israel.
Set against the landmark events of the twentieth century, and the monumental reconciliation between Christianity and Judaism, this singular portrait of John Paul II reveals him as only one of his closest friends can. Readers will come to know the Holy Father as a man, to understand his controversial ideas as expressions of his life experiences, and to discover the genesis of an enduring friendship that would impact the world.
The Hidden Pope is “a fascinating personal tale played out against the great moments of modern European history. . . . Anyone intrigued by the often surprising confluences of history, politics and religion will relish this impressive study in faith, friendship and mutual respect” (Publishers Weekly).
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About the Author
Darcy O’Brien is the author of the novels A Way of Life, Like Any Other, which won the Ernest Hemingway Award for Best First Novel in 1978, and The Silver Spooner, as well as the nonfiction bestseller Two of a Kind: The Hillside Stranglers. He died in 1998.
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The Hidden Pope
The Untold Story of a Lifelong Friendship That Is Changing the Relationship Between Catholics and Jews
By Darcy O'Brien
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Darcy O'Brien
All rights reserved.
A few minutes before seven in Rome on the evening of Monday, October 16, 1978, Ingegnere Jerzy Kluger was lying in the dentist's chair with one of those tubes dangling from his lower lip. He half-listened to the radio that was always playing there, trying to let his mind drift.
A filling had broken off at lunch, and he drove directly from his office after the dentist agreed to fit him in. As someone who had survived a Russian slave labor camp and other inconveniences, having a tooth fixed was hardly a crisis. It was the interruption of routine that put him out of sorts.
Jerzy Kluger has the personality of a Beethoven symphony. He has a sweetness beyond words, especially in regard to his children and grandchild, but it can give way in an instant to resounding kettle drums. To him, life is a grand passion to which he clings like an obsessive lover. To keep anxiety at bay, he invents rigid schedules for himself and spends at least ten hours each weekday at his business. He is impatient with interfering trivia and apt to snap at someone who is making ado about nothing, "If that is the worst thing that's ever happened to you, you should thank God," although he never specifies the genuine tragedies that he has known. Up at dawn, in the office by eight, he lives by a maxim that he remembers hearing his grandfather say: "You are a long time dead."
On that day in the dentist's office, Jerzy was fifty-seven. He had few physical complaints other than pains in his feet and a susceptibility to pneumonia, legacies of the labor camp. Saturdays were for tennis; he still played doubles with the intensity that once took him to some of the sport's most renowned courts. At five feet ten inches, he had the tough physique of an athlete, but his soft, blue-green eyes and moderate features made him appear warm, even cuddly. Inwardly, he was wary of predators, who seemed to lurk everywhere apart from his family and a trusted friend.
In the dentist's chair, he felt trapped. The music didn't help. It sounded like Wagner or something equally oppressive.
Suddenly the music stopped in midswoon. An announcer interrupted the broadcast to take listeners to Saint Peter's Square. Jerzy heard the sounds of restless crowds of believers. A single voice exulted, "Habemus Papam!"
Latin had not been his strongest suit in school. He would sooner tinker with an automobile than master the ablative absolute, although he is fluent in Italian and English, competent in German and Russian, and, of course, at home in his native Polish—all tongues with a practical use. The Italian word Ingegnere, which customarily precedes his name as a polite form of address in the European style, means "engineer" and acknowledges his degrees. The Latin phrase from the radio, however, was plain enough.
"They have chosen a new pope at last," the dentist said, suspending operations. "The long wait is over."
With the apparatus still lodged in his mouth, Jerzy managed only a grunt. "I, too, am intensely curious about who will become the next pope," he would have added if he had been able. "You probably think that since I am a Jew, I have no interest in such things, but you are quite mistaken. All the same, I wish you would be kind enough to tend to your job so that I can get home to a glass of wine and some dinner!" He rolled up his eyes to see the dentist, idle pick in hand, eagerly turning up the volume.
This papal conclave, the second within two months, had been going on for three days, with black smoke escaping the Sistine Chapel chimney several times to indicate a continuing lack of consensus among the cardinals. Even at the Parioli Tennis Club over the weekend, all anyone could talk about was who would be the new pope and whether he would be another Italian. Men were calculating odds, claiming to have the inside dope.
Jerzy gathered that Cardinal Siri, the conservative who was going to turn back the reforms of Vatican II that had frightened some into thinking that the Church was rolling downhill like a snowball headed for hell, had entered as the three-to-one favorite. The deadlock persisted through Sunday, and interest shifted to the Florentine, Cardinal Benelli, with a long-shot Frenchman and a Dutchman moving up.
Jerzy, who usually loved the gossip bubbling at his club, an elegant enclave near his apartment, had stayed uncharacteristically reserved in public about this competition. Some members might even have considered an interest in the matter inappropriate for a Jew. It was amazing how these sophisticated Romans thrived on news from the Vatican. They were worldly-wise, gold-skinned wizards at business, but when it came to rumors from behind those ancient walls, they devoured every scrap. A papal election, like the World Cup or nearly so, excited every social and economic stratum in Italy. If it had been merely the question of a new prime minister, few would have given it the time of day because it seemed that there was a new one elected nearly every month.
The irony was not lost on Jerzy that he, one of a handful of Jewish members of his club, had as close a contact within the College of Cardinals as any of the Catholics. At that moment, an old school chum of his, who happened to be the Archbishop of Krakow, was locked up in the chapel with the rest of the cardinals and had even been mentioned as a candidate. Jerzy had no idea whom his friend favored or whether he even wished so unimaginable a distinction for himself. The odds seemed to be prohibitively against any non-Italian, let alone one from behind the Iron Curtain. Nevertheless, Jerzy was rooting for his friend, not merely for personal reasons but also because he thought Karol Wojtyla was such a wonderful fellow that having him as head of the Roman Catholic Church would be a great thing for the human race.
Not that he had mentioned any of this to anyone. It was not the sort of thing one discussed. He would never do anything to compromise the friendship that he valued more than anything else in the world, except for his family. It was a bond beyond price that made him feel blessed—a precious link to the distant, happy past.
"Ioannem Paulum Secundum!" the radio announced. The crowd let out a swelling roar.
"Did you catch his real name?" the dentist asked. "Is he an Italian?"
Irritated, Jerzy removed the tube from his mouth. "It will be on the television later," he said. "We will learn everything so much better that way. I am sure he is Italian. Meanwhile, why don't you finish with my tooth, if you don't mind? I could grow a beard lying here. You can put the saddle on the donkey, but it takes a stick to make him move!"
"Shhh! The Santo Padre speaks!" the dentist admonished.
Constrained to listen, Jerzy heard a mellifluous baritone offer praise to Our Lord Jesus Christ. Slowly the voice continued, "I do not know whether I can explain myself well in your—our—Italian language. If I make a mistake, you will correct me. And so I present myself to you all to confess our common faith, our hope...."
"What kind of an accent is that?" the dentist asked.
"Polish!" Jerzy bellowed.
He struggled up from the chair, madly trying to free his arms from the smock and shouting, "It's Lolek! Lolek is the pope!"
"I beg your pardon?"
Jerzy grabbed the dentist by the shoulders. "It's Wojtyla, don't you see? I know him!" "You know the pope?" the dentist asked skeptically.
"He is my friend! I recognized his voice immediately! He is, like me, a boy from Wadowice!" Jerzy explained excitedly.
"Congratulations, Ingegnere Kluger. Perhaps he will make you a cardinal." The dentist looked at him askance.
"I have to use your telephone."
"Certainly. But His Holiness may be busy just now. You could try to reach the Queen of England," the dentist said.
The receptionist had already gone home. Still in the smock, Jerzy sat at her desk and with trembling fingers dialed home. Shouting into the phone, he reeled off the news in a jumble of Italian, Polish, and English that only his wife, Renée, could have understood. He told her he would bring champagne.
"Holy Mother of God," his wife said.
Later that evening, Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz, who had been Cardinal Wojtyla's personal secretary for many years, telephoned the Klugers to invite them to meet His Holiness a week later at a special reception in the Vatican. Pope John Paul II, as the man christened Karol Jozef Wojtyla had named himself in honor of his short-lived predecessor, John Paul I, was calling this informal gathering "Farewell to the Motherland." He was personally inviting his closest Polish friends in Rome to join him in welcoming thousands journeying from Poland to celebrate the elevation of one of their own to the papacy. Wojtyla was the first non-Italian pontiff since Adrian VI, a Dutchman who was elected in 1522 and died the next year. And, as Jerzy knew, he was deeply attached to his homeland.
As instructed, the Klugers arrived at the Paul VI auditorium, a modern structure adjacent to Saint Peter's Basilica, late the following Monday afternoon. The guests were asked to assemble there to be addressed by various members of the Polish hierarchy and, later, by the new pope himself. A few would be honored first by being summoned individually to a room backstage, where His Holiness would greet them in a succession of private audiences. In the enormous hall, which was designed for concerts, the atmosphere was a combination of religious happening and pep rally. To the pope's countrymen, this acknowledgment seemed less a farewell than a sign that they would not be forgotten.
Jerzy, Renée, their daughter Linda, and her daughter, Stephania, who was eight, mingled in the great hall with perhaps three thousand other guests. The Klugers' other daughter, Lesley, was at home, ill with the flu and frustrated at not being able to attend. Jerzy and Renée knew a few of the other guests, mostly priests. It occurred to him that of all the people in the hall, he had undoubtedly known the new pope the longest. Even now, he thought of him in terms of his familiar old name from their school days—Lolek, the diminutive of Karol (which in English is "Charles").
Among this group of Poles, Jerzy had by far the least direct contact with the homeland. Travel to and from Communist Poland was difficult at best, but since World War II, he had never had the least desire to return there. Correspondence with Lolek, whom he often saw during the archbishop's frequent trips to Rome, and occasional phone calls were enough.
His business—importing tractors and other heavy equipment—took him all over Europe and to North and South America. He was often on business in West Germany. Yet he had not set foot in Poland since departing on a train to Russia in November of 1939, and he saw no reason why he ever would. It was not an attractive prospect to see his native land, some memories of which he held in paradoxical affection, under Russian Communist domination. But his aversion had deeper origins: he had no surviving family there.
In the auditorium, no names had yet been called. Protocol, Jerzy assumed, would dictate that Church dignitaries and Polish government officials be summoned first, according to rank. The order would place him near to last; it could take hours. Then suddenly, the words "Ingegtiere Jerzy Kluger e famiglia!" were broadcast over a loudspeaker. He was stunned.
He turned to Renée as if for verification of their identity. She nodded toward the stage, where Monsignor Dziwisz, with that slight movement of upraised fingers to prompt the faithful that only priests seem to master, indicated that they should approach.
So it was that the last became first. Backstage, John Paul II was seated in the green room on a high-backed, white-upholstered chair. He was wearing the simple white papal garments that would be his public apparel until his death.
Monsignor Dziwisz, with a smile on his usually dour face, ushered them in. The pontiff himself was beaming as he stood to greet them with outstrectched arms. Somehow Jerzy had expected something grander—pomp, a throne, flourishes—but there was Lolek, as disarmingly unpretentious as always.
"Jurek," the pope said, addressing his friend with the familiar diminutive of his name (in English, Jerzy is "George"). "How wonderful to see all of you. How pretty Stephania looks, as always." He spoke in Polish, so the child, whose thick blond hair fell straight and shining to her shoulders, missed the compliment. But she caught her name and ran to him. He lifted her into his arms and gently patted her face. She hugged his neck as if he were her favorite uncle.
Jerzy never slept much anyway, but he certainly had not the previous night. His mind wrestled with memories, and he wondered if Lolek would already have changed and become unapproachably grand, too exalted to touch. In reality, however, his friend seemed disconcertingly normal. If Lolek had not been wearing those clothes and the white yarmulke-like cap to replace the red one that he had worn as a cardinal, Jerzy might have forgotten what had happened. How was one supposed to greet the Vicar of Christ? As His Holiness lowered Stephania gently to the floor, Jerzy also wondered whether it made any difference that he had often played table tennis with this old friend who was now the Holy Father.
Before he could decide what to say or do, he found himself enwrapped in the papal arms. Impulsively, he bent one knee and bowed his head to kiss the famous Fisherman's ring, but he failed to reach it. Instantly, he felt that strong right hand grip his elbow and lift him upright.
"You must never bow your knee to me, Jurek," John Paul II said. "Stand straight as you always have."
The headline in a Roman newspaper the next morning read "pope Grants First Audience to Hebrew Friend."CHAPTER 2
Jerzy Kluger thought that John Paul II chose him as the first person to be granted a private audience simply because the pope had known him longer than any of the other Poles who had gathered in the auditorium. Born within a year of one another, Jerzy and the new pope had grown up together in Wadowice, a small town in southern Poland. The Holy Father believed in Providence, did he not? If a Jew was first, so be it.
From the way the media highlighted their meeting, others were bound to place great significance on this honor as well. Jerzy knew his old friend well enough to assume that he would anticipate the reaction of others and would enjoy it.
After living obscurely in Rome for twenty-five years, Jerzy suddenly found himself something of a celebrity. To interviewers he said only what he believed, that his audience with the Santo Padre had been purely a personal occasion. Had there been other old schoolmates present, the pope undoubtedly would have seen them first. That Jerzy happened to be Jewish showed only that John Paul II was above vulgar distinctions.
To the Jewish community of Rome, however, Jerzy's privilege evoked fond memories of another pontiff. There was a story about Pope John XXIII that circulated among the Roman Jewish community. It continues to be told today, even by bishops, but it is heard more often among the fifteen thousand Jews who live in the Eternal City, four of whose families trace their Roman roots back to the second century before Christ.
On a Saturday early in his papacy, John XXIII was being driven northward along the River Tiber. When his car was slowed by traffic along the Lungotevere Cenci, he noticed a building that he didn't recognize. Its Assyrian-Babylonian architecture may have reminded him of places that he recalled from his days as nuncio in Istanbul. Soberly dressed people approached and passed between columns to enter it. As if marking an oasis, slender palms loomed from an adjacent courtyard, adding to the Levantine effect.
"What is this palazzo?" Pope John asked.
"That is the great temple of the Jews," his driver said. Pope John told him to stop.
Excerpted from The Hidden Pope by Darcy O'Brien. Copyright © 1998 Darcy O'Brien. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
- Selected Personal and Place Names
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- Chapter 9
- Chapter 10
- Chapter 11
- Chapter 12
- Chapter 13
- Chapter 14
- Chapter 15
- Chapter 16
- Chapter 17
- Chapter 18
- Chapter 19
- Chapter 20
- Chapter 21
- Chapter 22
- Chapter 23
- Chapter 24
- Chapter 25
- Chapter 26
- Chapter 27
- Chapter 28
- Chapter 29
- Chapter 30
- Sources and Acknowledgments