Jerzy Kluger says the first memory he shares with Karol Wojtyla, the man who is now Pope John Paul II, is of being chased around the square in their home town in Poland by an irate policeman. They were only 4 or 5 years old and had tried to pluck the policeman's sword from its sheath while he dozed on a bench.
That town, Wadowice, had one policeman, 8,000 Catholics and 2,000 Jews. Young Jerzy and Karol, a Jew and a Catholic, studied together in the same state-run school, played soccer in the fields and cowboys and Indians in the wood, and did their homework in one another's homes.
World War II tore the Jews from Wadowice, but after decades without contact, Mr. Kluger and Pope John Paul II salvaged their friendship and became partners in a pursuit far more delicate than sword-snatching.
In Rome, 17 years ago, the Pope quietly enlisted Mr. Kluger to serve as an informal intermediary between Israeli and Vatican officials in the sensitive negotiations that eventually led the Vatican to grant Israel formal diplomatic recognition, according to a new book called "The Hidden Pope" (Daybreak). The book's author Dray O'Brien, died on March 2 at age 59.
"The people in the Vatican do not know Jews, and previous popes did not know Jews," Mr. Kluger said in a telephone interview from Rome. "But this Pope is a friend of the Jewish people because he knows Jewish people. He grew up in Wadowice."
The friendship between Pope John Paul II, 77, and Mr. Kluger, 76, helps explain why this Pope has made reconciliation between Catholics and Jews one of his highest priorities. He was the first Pope to visit a synagogue and the first to visit the death camp at Auschwitz. he has denounced anti-Semitism and referred to Jews as "our elder brothers."
This month the Vatican released a long-awaited teaching document it called "an act of repentance" for the failure of Catholics to deter the Holocaust. The document disappointed some Jewish leaders because it contained no explicit apology and defended Pope Pius XII, who many Jews believe was passive in the face of genocide.
Mr. Kluger said that he and Pope John Paul II had discussed the Holocaust - over lunches, on ski trips and on long walks. "He is ashamed of what's happened to the Jews," Mr. Kluger said. "He would love to say something more. If God will give him time to live long enough, he will do more."
All over the world, Jewish leaders had been worried back in 1978 on hearing the news from the Vatican that the new Pope was a Pole. The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was in Poland, a mere 35 miles from Wadowice. Poland's prewar Jewish population of 3.5 million was diminished to almost nothing through extermination and expulsion.
Poland in the 1930's was a place where many peasants still believed that Jews mixed the blood of Catholic children with their matzoh meal at Passover, and the Catholic Primate issued a pastoral letter urging the boycott of Jewish businesses. But when the German invaded, thousands of Catholics risked their lives to save Jewish friends and strangers.
"When John Paul II was named Pope, my mother, who is Polish, said he could be the best or the worst," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "I feel he's been the best."
As a child, Karol Wojtyla (pronounced Vo-TEE-yah) lived in an apartment behind the church. His father, a retired army lieutenant on a meager pension, cut costs by sewing his son's clothes. Karol's mother died when he was 9, and his older brother - a medical school graduate - contracted scarlet fever and died three years later. Karol's sister had died before he was born.
Karol and his father seemed intensely devoted to one another, to their Catholic faith, and to Poland, Mr. Kluger recalls. He remembers many afternoons next to the coal-fired stove in the Wojtylas' kitchen, listening to karol's father recite stories of ancient Greece and Rome and the history of Poland.
Jerzy's father too was a Polish nationalist, proud to be a captain in the Polish Army reserves. He served as president of Wadowice's Jewish community, the man to whom Catholics came when any disputes arose.
He believed in music as a means of interfaith dialogue. Every week a string quartet of two Catholics and two Jews rehearsed at the Klugers' house; Karol would sit in the corner and listen.
The Klugers were more assimilated than many other local Jews, sending their children to public rather than Jewish schools, and speaking Polish - not Yiddish - at home, Mr. Kluger said. But they were observant. On Friday nights they lighted candles and walked to the synagogue for services. Jerzy lived with his mother, father, younger sister and grandmother in a 10-room apartment overlooking the town square.
Although ugly incidents were not unknown, Jews and Catholics enjoyed better relations in Wadowice (pronounced vahd-oh-VEE-cheh) than in the Polish countryside, Mr. Kluger said. Wadowice was a county seat whose population of government clerks, teachers, military officers and professional was fairly well educated and well-off.
"It was a very nice relationship between Jews and Christians," recalled Melita Huppert, Mr. Kluger's cousin, who is 84 and now lives in New York. "It was a peaceful coexistence.."
The war destroyed that Wadowice. After the Germans invaded, Jerzy and his father sought to join the retreating Polish Army, finally catching up with the Polish troops and enlisting in Russia. His father was sent to Palestine; Jerzy was sent to Cairo, then Iraq and finally the front in Italy to fight. His sister and mother, who refused to leave his ailing grandmother, were taken away by Nazi soldiers. His grandmother was put on a train to the camp at Belzec, and died there. His sister and mother died in Auschwitz.
Karol Wojtyla worked for four years in a limestone quarry. His father died, and priests he admired were martyred with the Jews. With the German occupiers cracking down on the Catholic Church in Poland, he entered the underground seminary in Cracow and studied secretly to become a priest.
For 27 years, the two childhood friends were out of touch. Mr. Kluger married a Catholic woman from Ireland, settled in Rome and started a business importing heavy equipment. One day in 1965, he heard a news report about a Polish Archbishop named Wojtyla giving a speech at the Second Vatican Council. He decided to leave a phone message for him in Rome.
"I was a bit frightened, embarrassed," Mr. Kluger said. "Maybe he won't want to speak to me. An archbishop is an important person."
The Archbishop phoned back right away, and the two were reunited. From then on, when the Archbishop visited Rome, the two frequently met. When the Archbishop was named Pope in 1978, he stunned the world by granting his first papal audience, or formal reception, to Mr. Kluger and his family.
Three years later, the Pope was wounded in an assassination attempt. On Mr. Kluger's third visit to the Pope in the hospital, the Pope suggested that with the Camp David accords pointing the way for peace in the Middle East, it was time for the Vatican to consider opening diplomatic channels to Israel.
"Are you willing to help?" Mr. Kluger says the Pope asked him. "We must proceed cautiously, officially and unofficially."
Mr. Kluger played the role of broker and host, inviting Israeli and Vatican representatives to dine at his tennis club in Rome and playing bridge with key Cardinals. The steps were often small and symbolic. Once he relayed an Israeli diplomat's suggestion that the Pope send a telegram with Jewish New Year greetings to the President of Israel. The Pope sent the telegram.
In 1994, at the ceremony welcoming the first Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See, Mr. Kluger stood for photographs next to the Pope, sandwiched between Israeli and Vatican dignitaries.
"I was a friend," Mr. Kluger said. "And we had friendly conversations, and friendly relationships which one way or another helped these developments. That's all."