My boyfriend’s 80-year-old Jewish maternal grandmother is the sweetest thing you’ve ever met and she still gets around as well as someone half her age — and she looks just as good. At the last big family event I attended, in the backyard of his parent’s house on Long Island, Nana took me by the hand as soon as I arrived and personally introduced me to every person there I had not met already. She is the matriarch in all the best senses of that word, so the message was clear: I was to be considered part of the family.
That this tiny woman with a French accent radiates immense sweetness and optimism is even more remarkable after you learn that she lost her mother and father in the Holocaust. She and her younger brother (who is also a remarkably nice person) were both hidden by a Christian family in occupied France, so they were both spared while their parents perished. Not long ago that house where they were hidden from the Nazis was officially declared a historical site in a city outside Paris.
That someone who endured from a young age such crushing losses under the cruelest of circumstances, and yet can somehow turn out so full of love and hope, is a source of constant amazement to me.
That is always one of the great mysteries about enduring seemingly insurmountable personal hardship at a young age: for some it is a reason to turn inward after deciding that life is best lived without risk of connecting emotionally to a world that can be unpredictably callous. For others, it appears to be reason to embrace life as fully as it can be lived.
I’ve been thinking about this phenomenon a great deal recently because another connection to the world of Nazi hatred and shame announced last week he was resigning as Pope.
I am not one of those people who believes Pope Benedict’s history in the Hitler Youth is proof of anything more than the fact that many young people were enlisted in that movement because that is what you did in that time, in that place. I believe him when he says it was done only in the way those things were expected of young people his age, and that he is not an unreconstructed Nazi.
Pope Benedict, at that time known only as mere mortal Joseph Ratzinger, experienced the Nazis from the opposite side as my boyfriend’s kind Nana, but one suspects that in many people those opposing experiences might offer up some of the same choices in their aftermath: choose to live a life filled with the resentment, suspicion and the emotional violence that were emblematic of Nazi thought, or learn from the horrors you witnessed and rise above them to live a life that is about empathy toward the victimized and openness to the myriad differences that make the tapestry of human existence more colorful, textured and full.
Ratzinger appears to have chosen the former.
A former member of the Hitler Youth might have decided in adulthood that if the Nazis taught him anything, it was that too much rigid ideology is bad for the soul. Instead, Ratzinger appears to have spent his life making rigidity and dogma his reasons for being.
A person who watched firsthand as National Socialism turned free-thinking individuals into dangerous political automatons might have chosen a higher path and eschewed later in life a need to have others adhere blindly to your way of thinking. Instead Ratzinger — first as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF, or the office formerly known as The Inquisition) then as Pope — chose instead to exhibit all the close-mindedness one might expect from a former member of the Hitler Youth.
It’s good to emphasize that part about the CDF: not only was Benedict a former member of the Hitler Youth, he also had the chance presumably to learn from the historical blunders of the his Church during the terror of The Inquisition.
So there you are: having been involved directly or indirectly with not just one, but two, of history’s greatest disasters in terms of man’s inhumanity to man, you are faced with two forks in the road: learn from your predecessors that religious and political omnipotence are catastrophes for personal dignity and freedom, or the other fork that takes you down the dark path of embracing harsh dogmatism, doctrinaire politics, and a condemnatory outlook on people.
Pope Benedict’s relatively brief reign that was filled with judgment and closed-mindedness — he once opined, and later backtracked, that God loves Catholics most of all, and the rest of you can (and will) go to Hell — suggests strongly he learned the entirely wrong lessons from his time in the Hitler Youth and the CDF.
This should not be construed as an attack on Catholics. After all, the family that saved my boyfriend’s grandmother and her toddler brother from destruction at the hands of the Nazis was a Catholic family, now memorialized as righteous Gentiles in Israel’s Yad Vashem; non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews.
It’s not Catholics who are the problem insofar as our civil rights are concerned. It's Catholic leaders, who often seem immune to the teachings of history, including the ones about protecting innocent minorities from the whims of a majority. Let us hope that the next Pope has learned life’s lessons differently than did Benedict.