Manfred Deselaers

Edith Stein brings the Memory of the Shoah
into the Heart of the Church1

In the year 2012 we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the death of Edith Stein in Auschwitz. Bishops of all the dioceses where she once had lived were present. Cardinal Erdő, Primate of Hungary and President of the European Conference of Bishops, presided at the Eucharist, celebrated at the memorial place next to the crematoria. Cardinal Meisner from Cologne delivered the sermon.2

But first, together with the Polish Council of Christians and Jews3, a Way of Prayer took place along the railway ramp which leads to the crematoria.

Edith Stein was born into a Jewish family in 1891 in Breslau. After a long time without religion and a time of searching, she came to the Christian faith within the Catholic Church. When in 1933 in the so called Third Reich she could not teach publicly anymore because of her Jewish origins, she decided to enter the Carmelite monastery in Cologne. From Cologne she fled to the Carmel in Echt in the Netherlands. Under the occupation of Holland she was arrested by Germans and brought to Auschwitz where she was killed in August 1942 because she was Jewish. Pope John Paul II declared her blessed in 1987, saint in 1998, and co-patron of Europe in 1999. A big statue of her now stands at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome where she holds a Torah scroll in her arm and a cross.

But in my imagination she is holding something else in her hand – the letter she wrote in 1933 to Pope Pius XI.

In August 1932 the German Episcopate repeated and confirmed their condemnation of Nazi ideology and forbade Catholics to be members of the Nazi party4. Six months later, January 1933, when Hitler came to power the situation changed fundamentally. In Church circles people began to think about the way to cooperate with the new government. On March 28th  the German bishops announced, “the earlier warnings and condemnation about what is forbidden are no longer necessary.” Generally this was understood as an acceptance of the government of the Third Reich and its Fuhrer.5 The same day March 28th 1933 in parliament the boycott of Jewish shops was announced and was to take place on April 1st. No bishop protested. The Church was silent.6 This was the background for the letter which Edith Stein wrote a week later to Pope Pius XI. The entire letter is about the relationship of the Church to the Jews.

Edith’s letter was read during the commemoration ceremonies on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of her death. We read it on the railway ramp of the extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was shocking to realize how prophetic it was, written at the beginning of Hitler’s coming to power, and nine years before her death in Auschwitz.

Holy Father

As a child of the Jewish people who, by the grace of God, for the past eleven years has also been a child of the Catholic Church, I dare to speak to the Father of Christianity about that which oppresses millions of Germans.

For weeks we have seen deeds perpetrated in Germany which mock any sense of justice and humanity, not to mention love of neighbour. For years the leaders of National Socialism have been preaching hatred of the Jews. Now that they have seized the power of government and armed their followers, among them proven criminal elements, this seed of hatred has germinated. The government has only recently admitted that excesses have occurred. To what extent, we cannot tell, because public opinion is being gagged. However, judging by what I have learned from personal relations, it is in no way a matter of singular exceptional cases. Under pressure from reactions abroad, the government has turned to “milder” methods. It has issued the watchword “no Jew shall have even one hair on his head harmed.” But through boycott measures — by robbing people of their livelihood, civic honor and fatherland – it drives many to desperation; within the last week, through private reports I was informed of five cases of suicide as a consequence of these hostilities. I am convinced that this is a general condition which will claim many more victims. One may regret that these unhappy people do not have greater inner strength to bear their misfortune. But the responsibility must fall, after all, on those who brought them to this point and it also falls on those who keep silent in the face of such happenings.

Everything that happened and continues to happen on a daily basis originates with a government that calls itself “Christian.” For weeks not only Jews but also thousands of faithful Catholics in Germany, and, I believe, all over the world, have been waiting and hoping for the Church of Christ to raise its voice to put a stop to this abuse of Christ’s name. Is not this idolization of race and governmental power which is being pounded into the public consciousness by the radio open heresy? Isn’t the effort to destroy Jewish blood an abuse of the holiest humanity of our Savior, of the most blessed Virgin and the apostles? Is not all this diametrically opposed to the conduct of our Lord and Savior, who, even on the cross, still prayed for his persecutors? And isn’t this a black mark on the record of this Holy Year which was intended to be a year of peace and reconciliation?

We all, who are faithful children of the Church and who see the conditions in Germany with open eyes, fear the worst for the prestige of the Church, if the silence continues any longer. We are convinced that this silence will not be able in the long run to purchase peace with the present German government. For the time being, the fight against Catholicism will be conducted quietly and less brutally than against Jewry, but no less systematically. It won’t take long before no Catholic will be able to hold office in Germany unless he dedicates himself unconditionally to the new course of action.

At the feet of your Holiness, requesting your apostolic blessing,

(Signed) Dr. Edith Stein, 
Instructor at the German Institute for Scientific Pedagogy, 
Münster in Westphalia, Collegium Marianum7

Two issues of this letter in my conviction have a great and lasting significance for the Church. First, it is about understanding how deeply Christ and His Church are connected with the Jewish people. Second, it is about understanding how dangerous political compromises are when they touch the trustworthiness of the Church as a witness of Christ.

Edith Stein wrote the letter to the Pope a week before Easter in the monastery of Beuron in Bavaria, celebrated Easter there, and returned to Munster where she was a teacher in a Catholic college. But once back in the college she was told that because of her Jewish origins it was not possible for her to continue with her lectures.

She had to learn painfully that publicly she could not do anything more for the Church or anything more for her people. In October 1933 she enters the Carmel of Cologne where she chose the name Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, Teresa Blessed by the Cross. 

In 1938 she wrote in a letter:

I must tell Mother (the Mother Superior of the monastery) that I took my religious name already as a postulant, I received it exactly as I had asked for. Under the cross I understood the suffering of the people of God which then was beginning. I thought that those who understand that this is the cross of Jesus, of Christ, must take it onto themselves in the name of the others. Today I know much better what it means to be married to God in the sign of the cross. However, the whole fullness you can never understand because it is mystery.8

All her life in the Carmel was a way of solidarity with her Jewish people.

Her approach to the cross is connected with the experience of death. After the death in 1917 of her teacher Adolf Reinach during WWI, she was surprised that his widow Mrs Reinach could deal so well with this as a religious quest. The way Mrs Reinach accepted this sacrifice through the mystery of the cross became one of the most important reasons for her conversion to Christianity.9

In the future it will be the closeness of the love of God in the person of Jesus Christ which will be central to her as was the case with Teresa of Avila. This is why love to the Eucharist and to Adoration became so important to her.

In the monastery many years later (June 1941) she wrote an imagined dialogue in which Queen Esther from the Old Testament says to the Prioress of the Carmel:

But there came a day when, through all  of creation, there occurred a fissure.  All the elements seemed to be in revolt, night enveloped the world at noon. But in the midst of the night there stood, as if illumined by lightening, a barren mountain. And in the mountain a cross on which someone hung bleeding from a thousand wounds; a thirst came over us to drink ourselves well from this fountain of wounds. The cross vanished into night, yet our night was suddenly penetrated by a new light, of which we had never had any idea:  a sweet, blessed light. It streamed from the wounds of that man who had just died on the cross; now he stood in our midst.  He himself was the light, the eternal light, which we had longed for from of old, the Father’s reflection and the salvation of the people. 10

It is clear that in Christ she sees the Messiah, the light of God for his Jewish people. However this light is a “dark light”.

When the soul  realizes that Christ, in his extreme humiliation and annihilation on the cross,  achieved the greatest  result,  the reconciliation and  union of mankind with God, there awakens in her  the understanding that for her, also, annihilation, the   “living death by crucifixion of all that is sensory as well as spiritual” leads to union with God. Just as Jesus in the extreme abandonment at his death  gave himself into the hands of the invisible and incomprehensible  God, so will  the soul yield herself  to the midnight darkness of faith which is the only way to the incomprehensible God. Then she will be granted mystical contemplation, the “ray of darkness,” the mysterious wisdom of God, the dark and general knowledge that alone corresponds to the unfathomable God who blinds the understanding and appears to it as darkness. It is not a mere acceptance of the message of faith that has been heard,  nor a mere turning of oneself  to God, who is known only from hearsay,  rather it is an interior being touched and an experience of God  that has the power to detach the soul from all created things, and to raise her, simultaneously plunging her  into a love that does not know its object.11

The mother of Edith Stein did not share Edith’s faith in Christ. Nevertheless she lived with a deep faith which Edith shared and admired. After her death in 1936, Edith wrote:

The news of the conversion of my mother was a  totally unfounded rumour. I have no idea who made it up. My mother held to her faith to the very last. The faith and firm confidence she had in God from her earliest childhood until her 87th year remained steadfast, and were the last things that stayed alive in her during the final difficult agony. Therefore, I have the firm belief that she found a very merciful judge and  is now  my most faithful helper on my way, so that I, too, may reach my goal.12

In Auschwitz there is no trace any more of Edith Stein. We only know that she shared the fate of her people who were destroyed in the Shoah. She is silent here. Only the Shoah shouts.

Cardinal Macharski once said to me: Why is Edith Stein so important? She did not write a theology after Auschwitz. She is there!

In June 2012 on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the death of Edith Stein, we organized a scientific seminar with specialists of Edith Stein from all over Europe.13 Some came with an anxious question: Do not words here at the edge of Auschwitz lose their sense. Should we not rather be silent? At the end of the seminar we agreed that the words of Edith Stein, Sr Teresa Benedicta of the Cross do not lose their sense here. On the contrary, we understand them in their depth.

Many Jews ask and are concerned about what the meaning of Edith Stein is for Christians in the context of the memory of Auschwitz. Does she represent the Jewish victims? Would this make over 90% of non baptized Jewish victims invisible? Does not this mean a Christianization of Auschwitz? And is she treated as a patron for the conversion of Jews?

No, she herself in her Christian environment always defended the dignity of non baptized Jews.  And she identified herself with the tragic fate of her people. She compels us as Christians to take the Shoah seriously.

At her canonization in 1998, Pope John Paul II said:

From now on as we celebrate the memory of this new saint  from year to year,  we must also remember the Shoah, that  cruel plan  to exterminate a people  a plan to which  millions of our Jewish  brothers and sisters fell victim. May the Lord shine his face over them and give them peace.14
What we do of course, we do from the perspective of our Christian faith, otherwise we would stop being Christians. And we believe that our Christian hope rooted in the love of God is also meant for Jews.

But Teresa Blessed by the Cross calls us Christians also to an examination of conscience.

During the commemoration ceremony of the 70th anniversary of the death of Edith Stein, Cardinal Meisner during the Mass at the memorial next to the crematoria in Birkenau said:

There is something which even until today makes me blush with shame, and this is the fact that in those times, no one among us Christians in Germany stayed with Edith Stein and her people under the cross. We left them alone under the cross. This should never, never happen again.15
Without a serious examination of conscience we cannot stand here. This is why on the 9th of August 2012, before the Mass began, we walked a Way of Prayer along the ramp in Birkenau together with the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, and with others we said the prayer which John Paul II in the year 2000 had put into the Western Wall in Jerusalem:

God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the Nations: we are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.16
After that, Stanislaw Krajewski, the Jewish co-president of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, near the ruins of the crematorium sang the prayer for the dead El Male Rachamim:

God, full of mercy, who dwells in the heights, grant proper rest beneath the wings of the Divine Presence, in the great heights of the holy and the pure, who like the brilliance  of the heavens shine,  to all the souls of the six million Jews, men, women, boys and girls, victims of the European Holocaust,  who were murdered, slaughtered, burnt, and exterminated in Auschwitz, …  in  sanctification of God’s Name, at the hands of  German Nazi murderers and their assistants from other nations. Therefore may the Master of mercy shelter them in the shelter of His wings for eternity, and bind their souls with the bond of life, the Lord is their inheritance, may the Garden of Eden be their resting place,  and may they find peaceful repose in their resting places, and may they stand for their destiny in the end of days, and let us say: Amen.
The memory of the Shoah, respect for the dignity of the Jewish people and the clear confession of the Christian faith, belong together in Europe for Christians today.

When the Pope in 1999 declared Edith Stein co-patron of Europe he wrote:

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.
The image of her holiness remains forever
 linked to the tragedy of her violent death, 
alongside all those who with her  suffered the same fate. 
And it remains as a proclamation  of the Gospel of the Cross.17
Today in St Peter’s Basilica Rome, a statue of St Benedicta of the Cross stands as co-patron of Europe. She holds in her hand a cross and a Torah scroll and invisibly also her letter to the Pope. This letter – with the smell of the fire of Auschwitz – has arrived now in the heart of the Church. Edith Stein is resurrected after having gone through the extermination.

This is why she has a lot to say to us.

1  Paper presented at the conference “The phenomenon Edith Stein”, 22-24. November 2013, Edith-Stein-Research Centre, Adam-Mickiewicz-University Poznań, Polen.
2  Bishops present:

  1. Archbishop Péter Cardinal Erdő, Primate of Hungary,
    President of the Council of European Bishops Conferences
  2. Archbishop Stanisław Cardinal Dziwisz, Krakau, Poland
  3. Archbishop Joachim Cardinal Meisner,  Cologne, Germany [ Cologne*]
  4. Archbishop Kazimierz Cardinal Nycz,  Warsaw, Poland
  5. Bishop Dr. Karl-Heinz Wiesemann, Speyer, Germany [Speyer*]
    representing Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, Freiburg i.Br., Germany [Freiburg*],
    Head ot the German Bishops Conference
  6. Archbishop Marian Gołębiewski, Wrocław, Poland [Breslau*]
  7. Archbishop Wiktor Skworc, Katowice, Poland
  8. Bishop Jan Kopiec, Gliwice, Polen [Lubliniec*]
  9. Bishop Tadeusz Rakoczy, Bielsko-Żywiec, Poland [Oświęcim/Auschwitz*]
  10. Bishop Frans Jozef Marie Wiertz, Roermond, Holland [Echt*]
  11. Auxiliary Bishop Heinz-Günter Bongartz,
    representing Bishop Norbert Trelle, Hildesheim, Germany [Göttingen*]
  12. Auxiliary Bishop Stefan Zekorn,
    representing Bishop Felix Genn, Münster, Germany [Münster*]

[*Towns connected with the biography of Edith Stein]
3  Board members of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, Warsaw, present: Stanisław Krajewski, Wiesław Dawidowski, Bogdan Białek.
4  Georg Denzler / Volker Fabricius, Christen und Nationalsozialisten, Frankfurt 1993, p. 257-258.
5  G. Denzler, V. Fabricius, ibid. p. 259-260.
6  G. Denzler, V. Fabricius, ibid. p. 260-262.
7  Translated  from the original German in a collaborative effort by Mrs. Suzanne Batzdorff, Jewish niece of Edith Stein; Sr. Josephine Koeppel OCD, and Rev. Dr. John Sullivan. (sourced 02.01.2014).
8  Edith Stein, Self-Portrait in Letters 1916-1942, page 295. Trans. Josephine Koeppel,O.C.D. ICS Publications, Washinton 1993.
9  Compare: P. Johannes Hirschmann SJ in a letter 13. Mai 1950 to Sr. Teresia Renata Posselt. Edith-Stein-Archiv, Köln, Signature GIJ/Hi. Quoted after: Ulrich Dobhan OCD, Edith Stein: Vom „radikalen Unglauben“ zum „wahren Glauben“.  (Sourced 9.12.2013)
10  Edith Stein, Collected Works, volume four. The Hidden Life, page 131. Trans. Waltraut Stein, ICS Publications, Washington D.C. 1992
11  Edith Stein, Collected Works, volume six, The Science of the Cross, page 121. Trans. Josephine Koeppel O.C.D. ICS Publications, Washington, D.C. 2002 
12  Edith Stein, Self-Portrait in Letters 1916-1942, page 238.  Trans. Josephine Koeppel O.C.D. ICS Publications, Washington D.C. 1993
13  Speakers:  Francisco Javier Sancho Fermín OCD, Rabbi James Baaden, Jan Machniak, Władysław Stróżewski, Wojciech Zyzak, Mette Lebech, Anna Grzegorczyk, Cordula Haderlein, Jerzy Wiesław Gogola OCD, Claudia M. Wulf, Joseph Varghese Maliakkal OCD, Placyd Paweł Ogórek OCD.
14  Homily of JP II for the canonization of Edith Stein, 11 October 1998 in Rome, Nr. 4.
15  Cardinal Archbishop Joachim Meisner, homily at Eucharist in Birkenau to commemorate 70th anniversary of  Edith Stein 09 August, 2012. (abgerufen am 27.11.2013). Trans. Annegret Fuehr.
16  Prayer of John Paul II at the Western Wall in Jerusalem March 26, 2000. (sourced 27.11.2013).
17  Apostolic Letter “Motu Propio” issued for the proclamation of St Brigid of Sweden, St Catherine of Siena and St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross as patronesses of Europe, Rome 1.10.1999, Nr.9.

Translated into English by Sr. Mary O’Sullivan RSM