by Father Robert Lauder
Over the last 10 years, my Good Friday experience has followed a pattern.
In the morning, I have gone over to Manhattan to take part in a Pax Christi Stations of the Cross procession along 42nd Street. (This year I had to forego that because of a complete knee replacement I had in December.) In the afternoon, I attend the liturgy. An hour after the liturgy, about 20 of us meet in a friend’s house to recite the rosary, share a pizza and then view some film that I have chosen that has some reference to the death of Jesus. In the past, we have viewed The Passion of the Christ, Romero, Cry the Beloved Country and On the Waterfront.
This year, we did something different. Instead of viewing a film, we invited a friend, Erika Estis, a survivor of the Holocaust, to come to speak and share her story with us. All our Good Friday meetings have been wonderful, but this one was special.
In the 75-minute documentary titled My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports, Estis is interviewed about her experiences in Nazi Germany and about her survival. The documentary, which is available on DVD, is excellent, but the meeting on Good Friday was an extraordinary experience. The timing, of course, was perfect, since Passover and Good Friday were commemorated the same week. The theme of both commemorations is related to the two most important realities in human experience: The mystery of death and the mystery of love. The feast of Passover celebrates God freeing the Jewish people from the death of slavery. The feast of Good Friday celebrates Jesus’ death, an act of love which Christians believe has saved all people from their sins.
Reflecting during Holy Week on the mystery of death and the mystery of love, I came to see that any serious drama, whether it be a novel, a play or a film, deals with these two mysteries either explicitly or at least, implicitly. I think of some of the most influential dramatists of the 20th and 21st centuries, such as Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett, and I find their vision of death seems to suggest that death is the final word about the human condition.
Not only in theatre, film and literature do we receive strong images of death, but we also experience death in the contemporary world as well, through war and crime, and of course, in the death of loved ones. Those of us who believe that love conquers death need powerful images of love to remind us that love, not death, is the final word about the human journey.
The feasts of Passover and Good Friday provide us with powerful images of God’s love for us. Those of us who were privileged to be with Erika Estis on Good Friday received a very powerful image of love. Sharing her story was an act of love.
Estis’ father was a very successful pharmacist in Germany before the Nazi persecution of Jews started. As the persecution began, he could have escaped with his family. Why didn’t he? I suspect he thought the persecution would pass or at least that he could survive in an atmosphere of anti-Semitism. I can understand that attitude. Who could have guessed what Hitler’s insane plan was?
Through the Kindertrans-port, 10,000 Jewish children were saved. When he was saying goodbye to teenage Erica as she left for England, Mr. Estis said that he would soon follow and meet her in England. Erika believed that would happen, but by the time her father decided to leave, it was too late. He and his wife died in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Hoping that her parents would be able to meet her in England, Erika prayed fervently and tried to make a deal with God: She would try to be especially good if God would save her parents. After discovering her parents had died in the camp, Erika, on a solemn Jewish Holy Day, deliberately violated the fasting law as an act of anger against God. Eventually, her rabbi convinced her that you do not make deals with God and that despite the overwhelming evil of the Holocaust, God never forgets His people and never stops loving us.
Whenever I read about or think about the Holocaust, I wonder how human beings could treat other human beings so cruelly and so ruthlessly. Of course, people can perform terrible actions because of free will. In giving us freedom, God has taken a chance on us: We can misuse our freedom and commit horrendous sins, or we can try to love and be genuinely concerned about others. In telling her story, Erika Estis reminded us of the mystery of evil. In confessing her reconciliation with God, she inspired us. She is a witness to love.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.