He grew up in a mixed Christian/Jewish community in Wadowice, and his best friend was a young Jew named Jerzy Kluger. He is the first pope ever to speak Yiddish.
That life experience made John Paul II a historic force in Jewish relations.
In 1986, he became the first pope since the age of St. Peter to set foot inside a Jewish place of worship, visiting the Rome synagogue. In 2000, John Paul visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem, leaving behind a handwritten note expressing regret for centuries of Christian anti-Semitism.
"We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer and, asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant," it read.
The climate was sufficiently new that on Sept. 11, 2000, more than 150 rabbis and Jewish university professors signed a statement called "Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity," asserting that "it is time for Jews to learn about the efforts of Christians to honor Judaism."
Not every Jew, however, was quite so impressed.
The decision to beatify Pius IX, the pope who kidnapped a Jewish child in Bologna and who put Rome's Jews back in their ghetto, was one question mark. John Paul's silence in 2001 when Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said Jews had killed Christ and tried to kill Mohammad was another.
The campaign to beatify wartime Pope Pius XII, who was criticized for not doing enough to save Jews during World War II; the canonization of Jewish convert Edith Stein; the implosion of a commission of Jewish and Catholic scholars to deal with the Vatican archives; and lingering bitterness over a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz--all clouded John Paul's relationship with Jews.
Yet many Jews would probably concur with Rabbi Michael Kogan of Montclair University in New Jersey: "This pope is the best pope the Jews ever had."
"Some Catholics may not like him, but as far as we're concerned, he's great," Kogan said. "He is determined that the Church will enter the 21st century free of anti-Semitism."