Eighty years ago, on Sunday August 9th, 1942, a transport of prisoners, which started in the Drente-Westerbork camp, reached its destination. SS men began to open the up till then closed boxcars and from them Jewish people come to Auschwitz-Birkenau, arrested in the Netherlands began to get off onto the ramp. Among them was sister Benedicta of the Cross, Benedicta a Cruce, Edith Stein, together with her birth sister Rosa.

From at least a dozen hours before, as the train was evidently going east, she knew full well where she was going and what fate, dictated by German Nazis, awaited her here, in just a moment. Three days before, on August 6th, at Westerbork she wrote the last letter of her life, addressed to mother Ambrosia Antonina Engelmann, prioress of the Echt Carmel. In big, unshapely and evidently shaky letters, which undoubtedly showed her enormous inner tension, in her second sentence she conveyed an incredibly important information, “Early tomorrow 1 transport will depart (Silesia or Czechoslovakia??)”. Silesia – meaning Auschwitz or Czechoslovakia – meaning Theresienstadt or more precisely Konzentrationslager Theresienstadt. Auschwitz meant instant death in gas chambers, whereas the ghetto in Theresienstadt did not give a much higher chance of survival though it definitely postponed the day of the execution. In any case both options Auschwitz or Theresienstadt meant one thing – a last journey towards the end of one’s life.

For Edith Stein this journey began, according to an eye witness of those events in the Westerbork camp, fr Ignatius Bomberg, “early morning at sunrise on August 7th. Along the road which ran across the camp, stood a wide row of men, women and children. A monastic attire peculiarly stood out among the people. SS men took place of the armed gendarmes and among coarse and scurrilous orders that long line of people walked out of the camp. We who stayed waved our hands long after that! That was the last time we saw that transport.”

Only a few traces are left of that journey. First, a woman on a rail station platform in Schifferstadt near Ludwigshafen heard someone calling her by her maiden name. It was her old teacher dr Stein dressed in black, who told her from a barred window of a boxcar “Please send my greetings to sisters from St. Magdalene – I am on my way east.” The last trace left of her was a message to sister Adelgundis Jaegerschmid from St. Lioba in Freiburg, written with a pencil on a piece of paper “Greetings from my way to Poland. Sister Teresia Benedicta”.

That short “I am on my way east”, “I am going to Poland” meant one single thing “I am going to Auschwitz”, “I am going to my death”. Saying that from the window of her boxcar “she gave off an impression of a calm and good person”.

Most probably in her prayers she also begged God to allow her to remain faithful till the end to the words which, on Passion Sunday, March 26th, 1939, not two whole weeks after the fall of Czechoslovakia and after the occupation of Bohemia and Moravia by Hitler’s Third Reich, she addressed to mother Ottilia Thannisch OCD, prioress of the Carmel in Echt. “Beloved mother, please allow me to give myself to God’s Heart in a propitiatory offering for the intention of true peace, for God to break the rule of Satan without another World War and that a new order may reign.”

To those words Edith Stein came back two months later in her last will, written in the octave of Corpus Christi 1939. “I already accept the death that God destined for me, with a perfect subjugation to His will and with joy. I pray that the Lord will take my life and death for His honour and glory, for all matters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, for the holy Church, (…) to beg salvation for Germany, for peace in the world, and finally for my loved ones alive and deceased, for everyone that God gave me, so that none of them may die.”

That last will explains her reason for the words she said to Wielek, a Dutch official at Westerbork, who still tried to rescue her from the imminent transport. She firmly said, “no, please do nothing. Why should there be an exception for me or this group? Is it not just that I should not have any privilege from my baptism? If I cannot share the fate of my brothers and sisters, my life is somehow destroyed”.

Next to that solidarity with her own Jewish nation, her writings and letters show one other, incredibly important motive of her life – her conjunction with the mystery of Christ’s Cross. In the beginning of 1931 she wrote a reflection titled The Mystery of Christmas. In a strange way she connected the mystery of Incarnation with the mystery of Redemption – and that in relation to every believing Christian. “Every person must suffer and die, but if they are a living member of the Mystical Body of Christ, their suffering and death gain a redeeming power thanks to the divinity of the One who is the Head. That is an important reason why every saint so wanted to suffer.” And she wanted to be a saint nun, completely devoted to her Divine Bridegroom. At the end of 1941 in a letter to mother Ambrosia Antonia Engelmann she wrote, “Scientia Crucis can only be achieved when you yourself have profoundly experienced the cross. I was sure of that from the beginning and I said with my whole heart, Ave Crux, spes unica! (Hail the Cross, the only hope!)”.

Now, on the rail ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Edith Stein, s. Benedicta of the Cross was going to achieve that Scientia Crucis in a final way. Offering her life for her nation she, in a way, followed in the footsteps of a man who, almost exactly a year prior, offered his life for the life of a fellow prisoner whom he did not know only because that prisoner had a wife and children, in the footsteps of fr Maximilian Maria Kolbe. Probably because of the similarity of their fates, so deeply connected with the Scientia Crucis, during the Angelus prayer finalizing the ceremony of canonization of Edith Stein in Rome on October 11th, 1998, Holy Father John Paul II said, “I remember that in 1982, also in October, I was able to canonize Maximilian Maria Kolbe in the same place. I have always been convinced that those are the two martyrs from Auschwitz, who will lead us towards the future together: Maximilian Maria Kolbe and Edith Stein, saint Theresia Benedicta of the Cross. Today I am aware that a certain cycle is coming to a close. I thank God for that”.

Whereas only a year later in an apostolic letter motu proprio form October 1st, 1999, Holy Father John Paul II proclaimed Edith Stein together with saint Bridget of Sweden and saint Catherine of Siena co-patronesses of Europe. In that papal document we read “Edith Stein (…) brings us to the heart of this tormented century, pointing to the hopes which it has stirred, but also the contradictions and failures which have disfigured it. (…) Edith made her own the suffering of the Jewish people, even as this reached its apex in the barbarous Nazi persecution which remains, together with other terrible instances of totalitarianism, one of the darkest and most shameful stains on the Europe of our century. At the time, she felt that in the systematic extermination of the Jews the Cross of Christ was being laid on her people, and she herself took personal part in it by her deportation and execution in the infamous camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her voice merged with the cry of all the victims of that appalling tragedy, but at the same time was joined to the cry of Christ on the Cross which gives to human suffering a mysterious and enduring fruitfulness. (…) Today’s proclamation of Edith Stein as a Co-Patroness of Europe is intended to raise on this Continent a banner of respect, tolerance and acceptance which invites all men and women to understand and appreciate each other, transcending their ethnic, cultural and religious differences in order to form a truly fraternal society. Thus may Europe grow! May it grow as a Europe of the spirit, in continuity with the best of its history, of which holiness is the highest expression”.

Your Eminence, Most Eminent Cardinal Prefect of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development, Your Excellency, Most Eminent Bishop of Augsburg, Dear Sisters and Brothers, let us now embark on that journey, which here, in Auschwitz-Birkenau, eighty years ago, as the last journey in her life, St. Edith Stein, s. Benedicta of the Cross embarked upon. May our collective prayer be an important contribution for building a fraternal society in Europe, which today in the Ukraine is touched by a cruel war started by a ruthless aggressor, that is Russia. May our solidary call to God for a Europe of the spirit join with the hymn Juxta crucem tecum stare, written on the Good Friday, 1938, in which Edith Stein states that our being together with Our Lady of Sorrows must first and foremost consist of contributing to others’ eternal salvation.

For the ones you chose for Your procession,
To one day gather around Your eternal throne,
Must stand with You beneath the cross,
Must with the blood of their deeply pained hearts
Purchase heavenly glory for souls,
Which the Son of God gave them as their inheritance.

Translated by Alicja Koźmińska