By Harriet P. Gross
Here we are, just a short time away from Yom HaShoah, the day commemorating the extraordinary suffering of our people in modern times. When I saw the film “Torn,” I was reminded again about the extraordinary suffering of Jewish parents who gave away their children in order to give them the gift of life.
In “Torn,” a mother entrusts her infant son to neighbors. “Keep him,” she says. “You can raise him Catholic. He might even grow up to become a priest.” And he did. He didn’t learn he was born Jewish until, long after committing to serve the Church, his adoptive father made a deathbed revelation. The priest, indeed, became “torn” between his two faiths.
I thought again of him when I saw “The Jewish Cardinal.” This film tells of Aaron Lustiger, son of a Holocaust survivor father and a mother swept away in a Nazi “action” while her husband had gone off to seek safe haven for their son. This boy also became Catholic, but by choice: He knew he was a Jew, but opted for his adopted faith. As Jean-Marie rather than Aaron, Lustiger became “like Jesus,” he said: a born Jew ultimately serving another faith in its highest places.
“Torn” makes me think about Holocaust Remembrance Day; Lustiger’s story resonates for me now, in the middle of Pesach, with echoes of both Chanukah and Purim.
As an American Jewish child during World War II, I knew nothing of the European Shoah. At Chanukah , we lit candles, spun our dreidels, ate latkes and sang holiday songs, among them “O Hanukkah,” whose English lyrics incorporate the rhyming “menorah” and “hora.” But in those days, my Boubby the Philospher taught it to me in Yiddish: “Oy Chanukah — a Yontov, a shayner, a lustiger, a freilicher…”
Wait a minute! “Shayn” means “pretty”! “Freilich” means “happy”! And “Lustig,” meaning “fun,” is the German root of the Jewish Cardinal’s surname! Long before him, that word had crossed cultures and passed into Yiddish, so Father Lustiger is grammatically related to our happy, laugh-filled Chanukah holiday!
But life for the French-born Lustiger was not always full of happy laughter. Although he rose in the priesthood to become Archbishop of Paris and a personal adviser/confident to Pope John Paul II, many Jews and Catholics alike questioned his self-proclaimed dual identity. (An old Yiddish proverb reminds us that no one can dance at two weddings at the same time; Lustiger must have realized that himself when, refusing his father’s deathbed request of his only son, he was able go to the cemetery, but found himself unable to say Kaddish.)
The Jewish Cardinal died himself in 2007, by then on no better terms with the Pope than he had been with his flesh-and-blood father. But this high-level Catholic alienation is what makes me think of Purim. Lustiger became the key figure in a major Church-related Polish-Jewish controversy; he was the one who insisted most effectively that the nuns who had set up a convent on Auschwitz soil should be moved elsewhere. Yes, nuns pray for everyone, he acknowledged. But what the Jewish Cardinal called “the world’s largest Jewish cemetery” was not the place for a Catholic house of worship that would, by its very nature, damp down the necessary, sacred emphasis on the atrocities committed there.
So I see Lustiger as a latter-day Esther. His own Jewish conscience was his Mordecai, reminding him that perhaps he had been raised to high estate in the Church for this very task, something only he could take on and successfully complete.
We know hindsight is always 20/20. Looking back, we can trace what seems inevitable after the fact: A Jew becomes a Queen, a Jew becomes a Cardinal; neither can deny the responsibility life foists upon them. Esther saved her people. Jean-Marie, nee Aaron, saved his people’s collective memory. And his last request was that Kaddish be said for him — at Auschwitz.