‘I am as Jewish as all the other members of my family who were butchered in Auschwitz or in other camps.”
Ilan Duran Cohen’s amazing film, “The Jewish Cardinal,” played at the Palm Theatre Sunday as the concluding event of the San Luis Obispo Jewish Film Festival.
The life of a convert to Catholicism, who was consecrated Archbishop of Paris by Pope John Paul II and insisted on his identity as a Jew and a Christian, is compelling.
Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the late Archbishop of Paris, was born Aaron Lustiger in France in 1926. His Jewish parents came from Poland in the tumult surrounding World War I. At the age of 10, he studied at the prestigious Lycée Montaigne in Paris, where he was exposed to virulent anti-Semitism. The family was not religious, but early on Lustiger was interested in the Bible — both the Hebrew and New Testament.
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In 1940, the 13-year-old, who was hiding from the Nazis in Orleans, was baptized and took the name Jean-Marie. From that moment, he described himself as both Jewish and Christian.
His mother was murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
After the war, Lustiger and his father and sister returned to Paris. His father sought, unsuccessfully, to have Lustiger’s baptism revoked. To the great anguish of his father, he became a priest, and eventually a Cardinal.
According to his biographer, Roger Chevrier, Lustiger had “a spiritual crisis in the 1970s, provoked by a persistent anti-Semitism in France. He studied Hebrew. He explored immigrating . ‘I thought that I’d finish what I had to do here,’ he explained, ‘and that I might find new meaning in Israel.’ ”
He told Chevrier that when he became bishop of Orleans, he “found that purpose in the plight of migrant workers.”
In “The Jewish Cardinal,” Lustiger is shown studying Hebrew when he receives news of his appointment. His father asks him to recite Kaddish, a prayer that praises God and expresses a yearning for the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, at his funeral. Lustiger was ambivalent.
After his first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1983, Lustiger became more fervent in proclaiming his Jewishness.
In 1984, the Polish hierarchy announced the formation of a Carmelite convent in Auschwitz, which had become a symbol of Jewish martyrdom.
Lustiger played a major role in causing Pope John Paul II, who was himself Polish, and Polish Cardinal Józef Glemp to have a change of heart. Both men had seen the convent as essential to the Polish struggle against the Soviet Union’s stronghold over Eastern Europe.
Lustiger told John Paul and Glemp that although Polish political prisoners initially had been imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz, of the 1.1 million deaths, 90 percent were Jews from throughout Europe. “Only the Jews were put to death along with their wives and children when they arrived,” he said.
After visiting Yad Vashem in Israel, a young Polish priest at Auschwitz says in the film, “We can’t act like the Communists who ignore uncomfortable truths.” The Communist government in 40 years of rule seldom spoke of the Holocaust. The convent was relocated outside of the concentration camp.
Like Pope Francis, Lustiger encouraged open dialogue between factions.
In 1989, Liz and I were privileged to attend a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Lustiger in Notre Dame Cathedral. Masses in Notre Dame were usually only a quarter filled. That evening, the Cathedral was full.
When Cardinal Lustiger was dying in 2007, he asked that the soil of Israel be placed on his coffin and that Kaddish be recited for him in accordance with Jewish law.
He wrote his own epitaph including the phrase, “I Have Remained Jewish as did the Apostles.”