A Cardinal Whose Mother Died at Auschwitz

Interview With Archbishop Lustiger of Paris

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PARIS, FEB. 2, 2005 (Zenit.org).- On Jan. 21, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger responded to journalists’ questions, on the eve of his departure to attend the ceremonies to commemorate the Jan. 27, 1945, liberation of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz.

Q: Eminence, what are your feelings on the eve of your trip?

Cardinal Lustiger: I will express my personal feelings in very simple terms. I went once in my life to Auschwitz, and I never wanted to return there again, because it is a place of death and destruction.

I have no spiritual or human desire to go there. My mother died there, as did 30 or 40 persons, I don’t know exactly, of my paternal family.

I am going there because the Pope has asked me, to carry out the mission he has given me. I am not going for personal reasons. I am not a former deportee. I should have and could have been deported. I was a contemporary of that deportation.

That is something concrete, emotional, which I bear, but that doesn’t matter much. What matters is that one not be mistaken about the importance of this affair. Over there, I would prefer to be silent about everything else.

Q: What is the state of relations today between Jews and Christians?

Cardinal Lustiger: It has been a long history of reconciliation, since «Nostra Aetate,» the conciliar document whose 40th anniversary will be celebrated in October in Rome.

It is a document voted on by the Second Vatican Council on which the present Pope, John Paul II, then archbishop of Krakow, worked on in a precise and particular way, as he did on other important texts of the Council.

He formulated in a new way the relationship of the Jewish people and the Church, of the Church and the Jewish people, marking out the conditions of the dialogue to come.

He did not make a «tabula rasa» [clean slate] of the past, but assumed that past and opened the doors to the future. Karol Wojtyla did not cease to work on the development of relations, and on all the necessary gestures for the purification of the memory, clearly attesting to sincerity.

I add a point that in my opinion is very important. He did not do so in an opportunistic manner. The reconciliation between Christians and Jews goes much deeper than that, into another dimension, because it touches the essence of the Christian faith in its roots.

The issue, in fact, is the very authenticity of the Christian faith. It is what is expressed in a powerful way, not only in an elliptical way as in the Council’s text, but by all of John Paul II’s teaching over 30 years.

Today, thanks to that, and to the progress made by the Jewish communities, extraordinary prejudices have fallen — as if, with confidence re-established, there is trust between one another, and the awareness that it is the search for truth that governs us.

Each of us can remain what we are and discover what we have in common, this being no more than the concept of man, anthropology. The constant reference in the Catholic Church is Genesis, which is part of Christian Revelation about man and woman, and the destination of goods.

Jesus himself referred to Genesis’ account of the creation of man. It is not a Jewish word taken by Christians or a Christian word heard by Jews as if it were theirs, but it is about the «same» Word. Something, therefore, has changed in the present situation.

A priori confidence has replaced mistrust and rejection — but also the capacity to say what one thinks without fear of offending or wounding; of discussions between peoples who respect one another; and the awareness that it is about common, ethical, spiritual and religious issues, of which Jews and Christians — Catholics — are bearers, not only for themselves as a confessional truth but as a service rendered to the whole of humanity.

To say what one has to say, to witness to that which one must witness to, and to be able to do so together, is the task we have before us.

Q: Has there been too much haste in the reconciliation between Germany and the Jewish community?

Cardinal Lustiger: We see how this normalization is in the process of being implemented — the chancellor’s visit to Israel, etc. A reconciliation that is given, desired on both sides. Why try to limit it?

Q: And the usefulness of trips to Auschwitz?

Cardinal Lustiger: It would be better, given revisionism, to go see what humanity was capable of doing. Father Decourtray, who was a sensitive man, of good faith, intelligent, and cultured, absolutely did not imagine what it entailed. He had an interior shock, and experienced an extraordinary spiritual journey, through the filter of this affair.

Auschwitz is not simply a «museum of horrors,» like at fairs. It is a descent into hell of human ghosts. One must not go there without taking precautions, without warnings, without support. However, it is not simply a subjective introspection of the fantastic that can inhabit the unconscious, or representations that human beings have, including young people. It is the phantasmagories realized by the human species, which cannot be witnessed without support and discussion.

Q: What should one think about present-day anti-Semitism?

Cardinal Lustiger: Anti-Semitism, European anti-Judaism is not a unique and homogenous reality from one country to another. There is little anti-Semitism in Italy; it isn’t «natural» [to Italians].

In France, anti-Semitism contrasts with the fact that it was that nation which, more than two centuries ago, first gave civic rights to the Jewish community — on the margin but still very present in the history of France — despite the fact that in the course of those two centuries there was the Dreyfus affair and many other affairs of that nature.

If one compares it with Slav anti-Semitism, or with that which occurred in Hungary, or Romania, or with the very particular history of Austria, or Germany, one realizes that there are local traditions that hold to the culture and to the place that the Jewish community held there.

In France, anti-Semitism was reactivated by problems that touch, above all, on immigration. It is a very curious case. I am not sure that it is a revival of the old French anti-Semitism, which was weakened by the trials that the Jewish community went through and the history of the French nation itself.

What strikes one, perhaps, is an anti-Semitism that I would call «of adolescence» or provocation, which one doesn’t quite know where to place. I would be very guarded in saying that it is an anti-Semitism typical of all the immigrant population of the Maghreb. It isn’t systematically Islamist or Islamic either. I would avoid generalizing.

Part of the problem is due to social conditions of integration, or lack thereof, of part of the massive immigration. It finds its roots in an ideology of religious inspiration.

The question is how to manage this situation. First, it is necessary not to «set the bush on fire» all of a sudden. It is necessary to know who has done what. In two or three recent cases, I urged that we wait to know who had done what before protesting. I don’t think it is right to proceed otherwise. …

Q: Is the Shoah [Holocaust] at the summit of crimes against humanity?

Cardinal Lustiger: It is the summit because of the reasons put forward, not the quantity of victims. I don’t know about other situations. I don’t know how there were millions of dead in Communist China, I don’t know how there were millions of deportations under Stalin.

What makes the Shoah singular is not only the quantity but the nature of the crime, namely, the massive, scientific, deliberate, willed destruction through totally rational procedures, at the price of all economic, geographic or historical rationality.

There was destruction for the sake of destruction, while the troops withdrew and continued to exterminate — for example, the extermination of the
Warsaw ghetto, real madness, even strategic.

And there were other events of this nature. It is the singular characteristic of this destruction, which had a religious dimension, that I have evoked. Why the Jews? Why that way? Why with such force, and such mad rationality? And why such a lie?

It was necessary to camouflage everything. It was Saul Friedlander who made evident the deceitful character which necessitated the fabrication of a new language — as the Soviets did later — to say things without talking about them.

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