Swedish nun who saved Jews from Nazis made a saint

A Swedish nun who saved Jewish families from the Nazis during the Holocaust was made a saint.

Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad was canonized on Sunday by Pope Francis during a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. She becomes the first Swedish saint in more than 600 years.

Hesselblad converted to Catholicism after being born a Lutheran. She saved at least 12 Jews during the Holocaust, hiding them in the convent in Rome where she served as mother superior. The Jews remained hidden for about six months, until the end of the war.

She was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Yad Vashem in 2004.

Hesselblad died in Rome in 1957 at 87.

Of Goddesses and Saints

In the aftermath of thedeaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, every woman I know hasparticipated in some version of “The Goddess or the Saint.” We’vetaken sides, debated our husbands and boyfriends, our mothers, ourfriends. At Torah study last Saturday, we weighed the two women interms of a moral dilemma: The princess or the nun, the glamour or thegrit. Our choice of icons defines our lives.

But beyond psychodrama, my response to the deathsof Princess Diana and Mother Teresa is not about either/or. I’m notlooking to them for meaning or relevance to my days. Instead, Irespond to these two women primarily as a mother of a teen-age girl.And my bottom line is, as a role model, I’d choose neither: Iwouldn’t wish on my daughter the life of either one of them.

I don’t want Samantha to be as famous, asbeautiful, as sought after, as besieged, as critiqued, as confused asour departed Cinderella. The cost of glamour is too high. Nor do Iwant her to be as selfless, as holy, as driven or, yes, as pious asthe 87-year-old saint from India. Devotion has its perils too.

From the prism of parenthood, I’m asking: Arethese two icons fitting role models for a sensitive young woman?Could I really place my daughter in front of their lives and say,”There, go follow?” No, no way.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Jewish mother that I’vecome to dread life at the edge. Judaism has no saints, no nuns, nomonks, no superstars; it exalts no one. A normal life without Jobianpersecution is blessing enough for us. A normal life, I was taught,means working hard, but not too hard; pursuing justice, but notdriving ourselves into poverty. A life grounded in the here andnow.

But normal life was not what these women wereabout. Ultimately, Diana belonged to no one. She had no immediatefamily, no religious community (the Anglican Church apparently readher out of its prayers after the divorce), no homeland. Rumor had itthat she was moving to New York, or wherever. Her new love, DodiFayed, though nominally of Moslem descent, belonged to no country orculture; he spent a lifetime jumping from resort to resort, hotelroom to hotel room, woman to woman. Diana and Dodi were spiritualvagabonds, having nothing in common but love. She had money, gownsand even a new sense of self, but by the time her car crashed in thetunnel, she was cast adrift from her moorings.

Mother Teresa, from the opposite end of thespiritual spectrum, was also essentially alone. She had a spiritualfaith, a community, identity and purpose. All things that I hope mydaughter will cherish. But I would not wish on her the weight of sucha burden.

The need for balance, the danger of life at theextremes, is the hardest lesson a parent can teach. Certainly, I wasa difficult student myself. In my teens, only slightly older thanSamantha is now, I craved a life of excitement, romance, intrigue,professional advancement and intellectual idiosyncrasy. I eschewedmarriage, family and sought novelty. I thought I’d travel widely andnever stop.

At the same time, almost in the same breath, Iwanted work that would be a “passion,” a career that wouldn’t let mesleep, that haunted me with its creative demands. I didn’t care if Imade a living, so long as I helped change the world.

And I got what I wanted! I worked on nationalholidays; sometimes, mine was the only car in the office garage. Iturned down invitations to family gatherings to finish articles onlaw reform that no one ever read. My ambition was one part PrincessDi — I’d have great clothes, and terrific men would be attracted tomy youth and passion — and one part Mother Teresa, selfless as theday is long.

My mother spent those years holding her breath,waiting for me to come down to earth. While I swung from theextremes, her hope was that I would know the stability of the middle.Life on the edge gives no peace, she would say.

It is my turn now to fret over the Goddess and theSaint. Samantha, at 15, is every bit the dreamer her mom was. One dayshe wants to be Madonna or Celine Dion, a big-name singer,transported by stretch limo from one SRO crowd to another. The nextday, she cries for the poor and homeless on the street and says she’dlike to live among them, if only for a week, so that she’ll know howthey feel.

She is caught between Princess Di and MotherTeresa. I pray that she veers from the edges and finds the middleground. And lets herself be.

Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of TheJewish Journal. Join her Oct. 5 for the next in her “Conversations”series at the Skirball Cultural Center. Her guest will be Dr. JanetHadda on “Passionate Women, Passive Men.”