In the United States, no one born abroad can grow up and become president. In France, any citizen can grow up and become president, or archbishop of Paris — even the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland. August 5 marks the fifth anniversary of the death of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. With his passing, France lost a public figure whose absence weighs heavily on a nation increasingly uncertain about its political and moral values.
As Henri Tincq’s recently published biography in France underscores, Lustiger had always insisted that the foundations of a good society rested on its recognition of life’s sacredness. Hence his fierce opposition to abortion and euthanasia, but also the reason he broke with official church policy in the late 1980s, urging the use of contraceptives by those afflicted with AIDS. He tirelessly denounced the racism of France’s National Front, identifying the party’s resurgence as posing “the greatest danger to our nation’s conscience.” No less energetically, he railed against the ravages wrought by “savage capitalism” and a society where material consumption had replaced social cohesion.
For Lustiger, this worldview was no less the product of his Jewish birth than of his Catholic conversion.
In late April 1940, as the massive exodus of Frenchmen, women and children began to surge south, ahead of the German Panzers, Aron Lustiger wandered into Orleans Cathedral. His parents, who had come to Paris after World War I, had, as a precautionary measure, sent their 13-year old son, along with his younger sister, Arlette Lustiger, to Orleans the previous year, where they stayed with a gentile family. Stepping inside the cathedral, Lustiger underwent an epiphany — an experience that, despite his parents’ resistance, led him to convert.
During the German occupation, Aron Lustiger was baptized — adding the name Jean-Marie — and sheltered in a series of Catholic institutions. He survived the war, as did his sister and father, who had fled to the so-called Free Zone in southern France. The French police, however, caught his mother, who had tarried in Paris. Deported to Auschwitz in February 1943, Gisèle-Léa Lustiger was murdered soon after her arrival.
For the next half-century, Lustiger sought to make sense of his wartime experience. He assumed the tragic weight of the history of a man who had been hunted by the German SS and the Vichy militia because he was a Jew. That he did so, first as seminarian and priest, then as bishop and cardinal, was an outrage to some — especially Jews — and a paradox to others. As René-Samuel Sirat, chief rabbi of Paris, declared, “One cannot be both a Christian and a Jew.”