Way of Prayer along the ramp in Birkenau
Symbolic participation in the last journey of Edith Stein
What unites us here today is the memory of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein, philosopher, educator, Carmelite sister, daughter of the Jewish people and daughter of the Church, Patron of Europe.
The life of Edith Stein was expressed by her courageous search for truth, her engaged participation in the intellectual struggle of her time for a true image of man, a deep faith in the Christian message of the Cross and steadfast love to people, to the Church, and to the Jewish people whose fate is identified with death in Auschwitz.
She was murdered here in the land of Auschwitz, the German death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, along with many others, because of her Jewish origin.
We want to pay tribute to this great woman. The memory of her life and death is for us an invitation to reflect deeply on the role of Christianity in today’s world. This requires from us a sincere examination of conscience and a clear presentation of witness to the faith. Because we believe that St. Edith Stein, Teresa blessed by the Cross, has already entered into the glory of the Lord, we ask her intercession to help us to better understand our Christian vocation in the Europe of the third millennium.
Let us pray
God of our fathers, fill us with the grace of faith, which in a marvellous way enriched St Teresa Benedicta. Grant through her intercession that we may always seek you, Supreme Truth, and be faithful to your covenant of love, built on the old continent standards of respect and tolerance. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Edith and the Shoah
John Paul II said during the canonization of Edith Stein, Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross:
As we now celebrate every year the memory of the new saint, we must also remember the Shoah, the terrible destruction of an entire people whose victims were millions of our Jewish brothers and sisters. The Lord make His face shine upon them and grant them peace.
We walk – from the entrance gate to the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria – the last way of the majority of the victims of Auschwitz. Symbolically, we join the last walk of Edith Stein and her sister Rosa. They were brought here on transports of Jews for extermination.
Edith was aware that under Nazi rule, she would share the fate of the Jewish people despite membership in the Church. In 1933, when the Third Reich was created, a friend told her about the atrocities committed against Jews as reported in American newspapers. Edith: Of course, already I’ve heard about severe regulations against the Jews. But now suddenly it became clear to me that God will again put a heavy hand on his people and the destiny of this people is also my fate.1
The same year she decided to enter Carmel. Here too, she felt a profound relationship with her people. She chose the religious name “Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.” To the superior she wrote later: At the Cross I understood the destiny for God’s people, which even then was beginning to be predictable.2
We turn to the prayer of Pope John Paul II which he said for the intention of the Jewish people in 1999 at the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw:
God of Abraham, God of the Prophets, God of Jesus Christ. You in Whom all is included, You towards Whom everything moves, You, Who are the end of everything. Hear our prayers for the Jewish People, whom you still consider dear because of their forefathers.
Awaken in them a constant and ever-more-vital desire to fathom Your truth and Your love. Assist them, so that their search for peace and justice may reveal to the world the power of Your blessing. Support them, so that they may know love and respect from those who still do not understand the extent of their sufferings, and from those who out of concern and solidarity do share their pain of the wounds that have been inflicted on them. Remember about the new generations, about young people and children, so that they understand that your plan of redemption includes all humanity and that You are the beginning and the ultimate goal for all peoples.
Examination of Conscience
At the threshold of Auschwitz there is need for an examination of conscience.
Pope John Paul II wrote on the occasion of the publication of his document, We Remember. Reflections on the Shoah: “The Church […] encourages her sons and daughters to purify their hearts, through repentance of past errors and infidelities. She calls them to place themselves humbly before the Lord and examine themselves on the responsibility which they too have for the evils of our time.”3
May the words of the letter which Edith Stein wrote in 1933 to Pope Pius XI, speak to us. Edith: “In recent weeks I had wondered constantly whether I could do something on the Jewish question. Finally, I had made a plan to go to Rome to ask the Holy Father in private audience for an encyclical. […] My inquiries in Rome showed that I had no chance of a private audience because of the huge crowd. […] So I gave up the trip and wrote my concerns.”
As a child of the Jewish people who, by the grace of God, for the past eleven years has 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 neighbor. 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 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,
Dr. Edith Stein
We know that many Christians, including the Popes, opposed the Nazis and tried to help the persecuted. It is also difficult to judge the consciences of individuals. However, as a whole “spiritual resistance and concrete action of other Christians was not that which might have been expected from Christ’s followers”4. We know and recognize that many Christians – including representatives of churches – failed and became guilty. We are very saddened by the damage caused to Jews by Christians throughout the centuries, and especially during World War II.
We join in the prayer which Pope John Paul II prayed, March 2000, at 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 behavior 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
Prisoners in Auschwitz
At the selection site on the Ramp, some prisoners were taken from the Jewish transports and sent into the camp to work.
We want to commemorate in this place all the prisoners of the Auschwitz concentration camp and its sub camps.
From 1940 about 400,000 registered prisoners were sent into the camp.
From the very beginning Poles were sent here: soldiers, resistance, and national leadership, among them 400 priests and religious persons. Of the 150,000 Polish prisoners, half died in the camp.
In 1941 about 15,000 Soviet prisoners arrived, almost all of them died.
From 1943 on about 23,000 so called Gypsies, Sinti and Roma arrived; 21,000 of them died.
Many others – non Jewish groups from different countries were deported to Auschwitz, mainly connected to resistance movements, but also Jehovah Witnesses and homosexuals.
In 1942 the Jewish transports from all over Europe arrived. While the majority went directly to the gas chambers, the young and strong were selected to work. About 200,000 Jews were sent into the Camp, half died there.
Primo Levi, a survivor, remembered:
There is nowhere to look in a mirror, but our appearance stands in front of us, reflected in a hundred livid faces, in a hundred miserable and sordid puppets… Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor can it conceivably be so. Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find in ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name, something of us, of us as we are, still remains… 5
Faith in the context of Auschwitz remains forever the dark night of faith.
In ‘Science of the Cross’ by Edith Stein, we find the following sentences: “We know already […] that there comes a point when a person […] immerses himself completely in the dark and void. There is nothing left to him, what might support him, only faith. Faith puts before his eyes Christ – poor, humiliated, crucified, abandoned on the cross even by the heavenly Father. In his poverty and abandonment he finds himself.”6
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, and am not silent.
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the praise of Israel.
In you our fathers put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
They cried to you and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.
But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by men and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads:
“He trusts in the Lord;
let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”
[- Pause -]
I will declare your name to my brothers;
in the congregation I will praise you.
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honour him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
Edith Stein was not selected to work. She suffered the same fate as the majority of the victims of Auschwitz, not being even prisoners they went directly from the train wagons to the gas chambers.
Most victims of Auschwitz never became prisoners in the camp. About 900,000 Jews were transported directly to the gas chambers and killed there, among them Edith and Rosa Stein. Later their corpses, like the corpses of the other prisoners, were burnt and their ashes thrown away. This became the symbol for the Shoah, this was the Shoah.
From the notes of Salmen Levental, a member of the Sonderkomando who was forced to work at the gas chambers, found after the war
Calamity, misfortune. Such feelings gnawed at every one of us. Everybody had such thoughts. We were ashamed and didn’t dare to look into each other’s eyes. Every one fled into a corner, out of pain, shame and weeping with swollen eyes, in order to avoid any encounter.7
Once, when several hundred naked, emaciated women were thrown down from trucks in ice-cold weather in front of the crematorium, Levental described the following scene:
One of us, who stood apart on the side, seeing the enormous misfortune of these defenceless, tortured souls couldn’t take it any longer and started to weep. Then a young girl cried out: ‘Look, what I can still experience before my death: an expression of compassion and tears shed about our horrible fate. Here, in the camp of murderers, where one is torturing and beating people until death, here, where one can see murders and falling victims, where people have lost any feeling for the greatest calamity, here, where all human feelings have been numbed, here, when your brother or sister is falling down in front of you and you can’t even give them a sigh of farewell, here a human being has been found who takes to heart our terrible misfortune and expresses his compassion by weeping. Oh, something wonderful, something supernatural! Tears and sighs of a living human being accompany us into death. There is somebody who will weep for us.’8
EL MALE RACHAMIM
Jewish Prayer for the dead
אֵלמָלֵארַחֲמִיםשׁוֹכֵןבַּמְּרוֹמִים, הַמְצֵאמְנוּחָהנְכוֹנָהתַּחַתכַּנְפֵיהַשְּׁכִינָה, בְּמַעֲלוֹתקְדוֹשִׁים
וּטְהוֹרִיםכְּזוֹהַרהָרָקִיעמַזְהִירִים, לְנִשְׁמוֹתשֵׁשֶׁתמִילְיוֹנֵיהַיְּהוּדִים, חַלְלֵיהַשּׁוֹאָה בְּאֵירוֹפָּה, אֲנָשִׁים נָשִׁים וָטַף, שֶׁנִּטְבְּחוּ, וְשֶׁנֶחְנְקוּ, וְשֶׁנִּשְׂרְפוּוְשֶׁנֶּהֶרְגוּ עַל קִידוּש הַשֶםבְּאוֹשְוִיץ… בִּידֵיהַמְרַצְּחִיםהַגֶּרְמָנִים וְעוֹזְרֵיהֶםמִשְּׁאָרהָעַמִּים. בַּעַבוּר שֶׁאַנוּ מִתְּפַּלְלִים לְעִילוּי נִשְׁמוֹתֵיהֶם. לָכֵןבַּעַלהָרַחֲמִיםיַסְתִּירֵםבְּסֵתֶרכְּנָפָיולְעוֹלָמִים, וְיִצְרוֹרבִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּיםאֶתנִשְׁמוֹתֵיהֶם, ה‘ הוּאנַחֲלָתָם, בְּגַןעֵדֶןתְּהֵאמְנוּחָתָם, וְיָנוּחוּ בְשָׁלוֹם עַל פְּזוּרֵימִשְׁכּבָם, וְיַעֶמְדוּלְגוֹרָלָםלְקֵץהַיָּמִין,וְנֹאמַראָמֵ
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.
for the Dead
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. – And let perpetual light shine upon them. (3x)
May they rest in peace. – Amen.
In silence we put down candles or flowers on the Memorial to honour the victims.
Let us pray for ourselves:
O Lord, make us instruments of your peace
To sow love where there is hatred,
Forgiveness where there is injustice,
Truth where there is doubt,
Hope where there is despair,
Light where there is darkness,
Joy where there is sadness.
Grant that may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.
For it is in forgiving that we are forgiven,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Let’s pray with the words Jesus told us. Someone said that it is a prayer that could have originated in a concentration camp.
Let’s pray together, but everybody in one’s own mother language.
Blessing … Let’s go in His Peace!
1 Original in: Wie ich in den Kölner Karmel kam. ESGA 1, 346. Translation Manfred Deselaers
2 Letter from december 9 1938. Original in: ESGA 3, 323. Translation Manfred Deselaers
3 We Remember. A Reflection on the Shoah. Vatican, 12 March 1998.
4 We Remember. A Reflection on the Shoah. Vatican, 12 March 1998.
5 Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, p 26-27. Touchstone NY 1993
6 Edith Stein, Kreuzeswissenschaft, Studie über Joannes a Cruce. The Science of the Cross. Studies on John of the Cross. Edith Steins Werke Bd I (Works of Edith Stein, Vol I) Freiburg/Basel/Vienna: Herder 1983, p. 107.
7 Salmen Lewental notebook in: Bezwinska and Czech, Amidst a Nightmare of Crime: Manuscripts of Members of Sonderkommando, Auschwitz-Oswiecim 1973, pages 142-5.
8 ibid p. 139.
Based on a text that was prepared in 2012 on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the death of Edith Stein together with the Polish Council of Christians and Jews