The story of France’s Jewish cardinal


“The Jewish Cardinal” tells the true story of Jean-Marie Lustiger, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants, who maintained his cultural identity as a Jew even after converting to Catholicism and joining the priesthood.
The 2012 film, in French with English subtitles, will have its New Jersey premiere April 3, at 1 p.m. at the Katz JCC, Cherry Hill. It is one of the films of the Jewish Film Festival and is being presented in conjunction with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Southern New Jersey.
There will be a guest Speaker: Rabbi Aaron Krupnick, Congregation Beth El.
Also shown with “The Jewish Cardinal” will be a short comic film, “Hannah Cohen’s Holy Communion,” the story of a 7-year-old Jewish girl living in Dublin who wants to receive Communion with her friends.
Central to “The Jewish Cardinal” is the controversy that arose when Carmelite nuns started to build a convent within the wall of the Auschwitz death camp, and Cardinal Lustiger served as a mediator between Catholics and Jews.
Cardinal Lustiger died Aug. 5, 2007, at the age of 80.
The cardinal, who converted to Catholicism from Judaism as a teenager, was the Vatican representative at the 2005 commemoration in Poland of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where his Jewish mother died. The first time he visited Auschwitz was in 1983, when he accompanied Pope John Paul II there.
During the January 2005 commemoration, Cardinal Lustiger said, “The silence of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s victims impels us to uphold and order the upholding of the dignity of each human being.”
In May 2006, the cardinal accompanied Pope Benedict to Auschwitz and described the visit as “one of the most important moments” of his life.
At a March 2006 talk at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the cardinal said the Holocaust was “human, rational decisions made by human, rational beings.”
To remember the Holocaust and ensure that nothing like it was ever repeated, he said that “moral conscience must become educated” so that people “identify good with life and evil with death.”
The cardinal worked hard to improve Catholic-Jewish relations. In October 1998, the New York-based Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding gave him its “Nostra Aetate” award, named for the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on relations with other religions.
The previous year, the French bishops issued a five-page declaration confessing that “the church of France failed in her mission as teacher of consciences” by remaining silent while Jews were persecuted in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. Cardinal Lustiger was one of the principal figures to present the document at a ceremony near a former Nazi deportation point for French Jews in a Paris suburb.
Never shy about discussing his Jewish past – he once told reporters he still considered himself to be a Jew and had a “dual affiliation” – Cardinal Lustiger received considerable media attention, which he used to promote interfaith dialogue.
During a question-and-answer session following his March 2006 address in Washington, he said, “It is impossible for a Christian to be a Christian … without the Jewish people.”
Christians and Jews are connected by God and loved by God, he said. “What Christians believe, they got through the Jews,” he said.
Born in Paris on Sept. 17, 1926, to Polish Jews who had emigrated to France, he was given the name Aaron. His family did not practice its faith, but paid for its Jewish identity with the loss of several members during the Holocaust.
The cardinal was spared, however, because a Catholic family in Orleans, France, sheltered him and his sister during the war. In 1940, at age 14, he was baptized and took the name Jean-Marie.

If you go:
“The Jewish Cardinal” will be shown on Thursday, April 3, at 1 p.m. at the Katz JCC, Cherry Hill. For information and tickets go to or call 856-424-4444, ext. 1226 or 1119.