Pope John Paul’s Jewish Miracle

English: Pope John Paul II during General Audi...
Pope John Paul II during General Audiency, 29 September 2004, St. Peter Square, Vatican (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Special to Earthpages.org

A second public miracle is needed in order to proclaim Pope John Paul II a saint, and that second miracle could be the revival of Jewish music and Jewish life in Poland, according to Reform Rabbi Allen S. Maller, who was a visiting scholar for two months at Beit Warszawa, a Reform synagogue in Warsaw, in the Fall of 2010, and returned to Poland for another 6 weeks in 2012.

Rabbi Maller points to an interview of Sir Gilbert Levine by Cecile S. Holmes, distributed by Religious News Service (1/5/11) that revealed John Paul’s role in the resurrection of Jewish music in Poland by the Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow.

Sir Gilbert Levine, whose conducting career spanned the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic and the Dresden Staatskapelle, was a Jew from Brooklyn. In 1987, Levine was invited to be guest conductor and artistic director of the Krakow Philharmonic in John Paul’s native Poland. The invitation was unsettling since Levine’s grandparents had fled Poland to escape the Nazis and members of his wife’s family had died in Auschwitz. Also living in Krakow in 1987 meant living behind the Iron Curtain, but Levine accepted anyway.

Soon after Levine arrived in Krakow, the Vatican invited him to Rome for an audience with Pope John Paul. That invitation led to others, and Levine was invited to conduct a concert in 1988 to mark the 10th anniversary of John Paul’s election. Thus began almost two decades of musical collaboration and a joint mission of peacemaking. Three years later, in 1991, the first public Jewish Cultural Festival was held in Krakow. John Paul and Levine also worked together on a 1994 concert to commemorate the Holocaust.

When Levine arrived in Krakow there was no Jewish music festival in Krakow; but his presence and his close connection with the first Polish Pope inspired some Poles in 1989 and 1990 to dream of reviving the Jewish musical tradition in Poland. Today there are more than two dozen Polish (non-Jews) klezmer bands and several Polish (non-Jews) groups that play and sing both Yiddish and Hebrew songs. Today there are Liberal Reform synagogues with Rabbis in Warsaw (2) and Krakow (1) that welcome Poles to  programs of Jewish music and culture. The partnership of a Polish Pope and a Jewish conductor, stimulated a musical engagement of Poles with Jewish souls, and Jewish music for Polish souls.

Levine still recalls his friendship with the pope with a touch of wonder:

Q: Tell me how your relationship with the pope affected you.

A: It deepened my faith, and he honored that Jewish faith wonderfully. It deepened my music making. I understand the spiritual side of music in a deeper and better way than I ever did before. It made me understand that there is no such thing as judging a person by the country they come from, the religion they practice or any other surface issue. Only by the character of their soul should a person be judged.   I was always astonished by the fact that he could let me into his life the way that he did. For him to have been open to such a friendship is just amazing.

Q: What are the most important things you learned from the pope?

A: My 17 years with John Paul taught me so much. The power of music and spirit to foster hope, transformation, healing and love. And more about the mysteries of faith, not one but three—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The potential for reconciliation and redemption in the face of violence and sadness.

But Pope John Paul’s connection to Judaism was not aimply a post Holocaust reaction, He also had a personal connection from his childhood years. Jerry Kluger and Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, were classmates in the southern Polish city of Wadowice; and were friends from first grade through high school. “The young Karol Wojtyla learned a lot about Judaism from Kluger,” said Italian author Gianfranco Svidercoschi, who was an aide to the late pope and wrote a book about the pontiff’s friendship with Kluger.

“He had a great influence on the pope’s life,” Svidercoschi, who wrote about their friendship in the 1993 book “Letter to a Jewish Friend,” told Reuters.  “The young Wojtyla visited the Kluger home in Wadowice, helped Jerzy with his studies, particularly Latin, and started a friendship that would influence his relations with Jews for the rest of his life,” said Svidercoschi, who was editor of the Vatican newspaper during part of John Paul’s pontificate.

They lost track of each other when World War Two broke out with the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and did not see each other again until 1965. Early in the war, Kluger and his father were arrested by the Russians and sent to a gulag in Siberia.

After Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Kluger was freed and joined Polish forces fighting the Nazis in Africa and Italy under General Wladyslaw Anders. Toward the end of the war, when he discovered that his mother had been killed in the Auschwitz death camp, he decided to stay in Italy. He studied engineering in Turin and later moved to England.

He settled in Italy again in the early 1960s, working for an import-export company and re-connected with Archbishop Karol Wojtyla in 1965 when Wojtyla was in Rome for the Second Vatican Council. Until they met for the first time since 1938, each presumed the other had died in the war.

After Wojtyla became the first Polish pope in 1978 they intensified their friendship and Kluger helped organize reunions between the pope and classmates from Wadowice either in Rome or during the pontiff’s trips to Poland. Kluger was in Rome’s synagogue when Pope John Paul made his historic visit there in 1986 and called Jews “our beloved elder brothers”.  When the pope made his first trip to Israel as pontiff in 2000, Kluger was in attendance at the Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust. Their friendship continued right up to the pope’s death in 2005.

Rabbi Maller’s web site is rabbimaller.com


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