Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

James Baaden – The Phenomenon of Edith Stein and Jewish-Christian relations

James Baaden

The Phenomenon of Edith Stein
and Jewish-Christian relations

Edith Stein in relation to other diverse Jewish women (believing Jews, Christians, universalists and freethinkers) who perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Somewhat less than 70 years ago, a German Jewish woman who had dedicated her life to the service of God was forcibly transported to the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, so near to us here  – and there she was murdered some time later.  She was Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first female rabbi in history: my colleague whom I never knew.  Her handwritten certificate of semichah, rabbinic ordination, signed by the great Jewish religious thinker Rabbi Leo Baeck, hung on the wall at the rabbinical college in London where I myself studied in the 1990s.  Two years before Rabbi Regina Jonas died here, another German Jewish woman who had dedicated her life to God, Sister Teresia Benedicta a Cruce, Dr Edith Stein, was likewise brought to Auschwitz-Birkenau and murdered there – or should I say “murdered here”?  It any event, it is because of her death there – or here – that we are together in this place today. 

If we speak about Edith  Stein and Christian-Jewish relations, then this means speaking about the phenomenon of Edith Stein, about everything that she symbolizes and everything that she had in common with many communities of Christians and Jews. We speak about greater contexts. We speak about larger groups of human beings, how they established contact among each other and how they understand different things about this woman who was murdered here in the year 1942. In the context of Christian-Jewish relations the phenomenon Edith Stein was a way, a possibility for many people to find out here about their relations to this place Auschwitz and all the connotations connected with it. I have decided to speak about different Jewish women in my lecture today, at least of two whom Edith Stein knew personally and who were also murdered here.

Edith Stein was deported from Westerbork in the Netherlands to Auschwitz in a transport which included her sister Rosa Stein and 985 other persons – all of them Jewish by birth, “non-Aryans” in the terminology of the German occupation forces. Of those 987 individuals, 63 or 64 were by religion baptized Roman Catholics, just under 6% of the deportees on the train.  When Edith Stein arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, though she had no opportunity to become aware of this fact, another notable Jewish woman, also by religion a baptized Catholic, was already in the camp at the time, the writer Irène Némirovsky – deported from Paris in mid-July; she died a week after Edith Stein on 17 August.  Months later, in early 1943, the German poet Gertrud Kolmar arrived on the Auschwitz selection ramp.  Like Edith and Rosa Stein, she was immediately sent to her death in the gas chamber.  Instant murder was also the fate of the young painter Charlotte Salomon, 26 years old, 5 months pregnant, when her transport from France arrived in October 1943.  Thus, just as Edith Stein never had the opportunity to encounter Irène Némirovsky in the camp, Charlotte Salomon had no chance to cross the path of another accomplished and visionary young Jewish woman, the Dutch writer Etty Hillesum, who before she herself was killed, was a prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau for two months in that same autumn of 1943.  Etty Hillesum had been at Westerbork in the summer of 1942 when Edith and Rosa Stein passed through the Dutch “transit camp”, and indeed they may have encountered one another there.  A year after the Hillesum family, including Etty, were transported to Auschwitz, and long after they had been murdered, another family from the Netherlands, the Franks, like Edith and Rosa Stein refugees from Germany, were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, also from Westerbork.  The mother, Edith Frank-Hollaender, died here, the father, Otto Frank, survived here – to see Soviet troops liberate the camp in January; their two daughters, Anne Frank and her sister Margot, were dragged on to further suffering – and their deaths – at Bergen-Belsen, only days before the end of the war. 

A short survey of Catholic-Jewish relations:  official “interreligious dialogue” and the wider perspective of “relations”

Two years after the mass murder ended, in 1947, an international gathering of Christians and Jews of many traditions took place at Seelisberg in Switzerland.  Looking back, we may well wonder what it felt like to leave the ruins and privations of so much of postwar Europe and step into the surely dream-like serenity of a Swiss village.  This we could certainly ask in the case of the one single Roman Catholic participant from Germany, Professor Wilhelm Neuss, a priest of the Archdiocese of Cologne.  In passing, let us remember as well that there was no “Germany” as such in 1947:   the sea of rubble which was Cologne was in the British zone of occupation.  Accordingly, the professor’s journey to a foreign country, Switzerland, must have been fraught with difficulty and challenge at all levels.  But he made it:  Wilhelm Neuss was at Seelisberg.  Let me tell you something else which has, to the best of my knowledge, never been noted till now:  there was one delegate who came all the way from Poland.  His name was Juliusz Gorecki.  Or more to the point, his name was not Juliusz Gorecki.

The Seelisberg conference contemplated the catastrophe, the Shoah, which had only just ended, and addressed the general topics of anti-Semitism and Christian-Jewish relations, arriving at a statement of 10 principles.  They participants took heart from the fact that they were not alone, nor were they the first to concern themselves with these matters. In Great Britain,  for instance, where I come from, a national “Council of Christians and Jews” had been formed a few years earlier, during the war, through the initiative of the (Orthodox) Chief Rabbi, the Archbishop of Canterbury (from the Church of England), and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminister, head of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The Seelisberg principles are still seen as the foundational platform of the International Council of Christians and Jews which eventually came into being years later in 1974, expanding on the work of the more modest “consultative committee” formed at Seelisberg.  Perhaps the key intervening event which enabled this transformation in 1974 was the Second Vatican Council of the years 1962-65 and its own “Seelisberg principles”, namely Nostra Aetate, the Council’s document on relations with Jews and other non-Christians.  Notra Aetate marked out a new way forward, pledging the Catholic Church fully and irrevocably to the cause of Christian-Jewish dialogue and facilitating the creation of the ICCJ in 1974.  We may with reason count other important developments of the decades since then as fruits of Nostra Aetate – Pope John Paul II’s visit to the central synagogue of Rome in 1986, the Church’s document We remember of 1998, or the conference of the ICCJ which took place right here and in Krakow only last year, 2011. 

To my mind, the history of Jewish-Christian dialogue, or the history more generally of Jewish-Christian relations, is about far more than high-level meetings, eminent international commissions, and arcane terms such as “Seelisberg”, Nostra Aetate, and the “ICCJ”.  It is about all forms of conscious Jewish-Christian encounter, meeting, understanding.  It goes well beyond the Nostra Aetate story.  Let us take the country we’re in, Poland, which I know well.  The ICCJ conference in Krakow last year gave much attention to the history of Christian-Jewish relations in this country.  All the speakers took Nostra Aetate from the year 1965  as their starting-point and then leapt forward to the middle of the 1980s, the time when the global controversy surrounding the Carmel here broke out – and the time when the Polish bishops established a committee and then commission for Catholic-Jewish relations.  Clearly the two happenings were not unconnected.  The truth is that complaints, objections, debates, even painful arguments are all forms of communications, all expressions of relationships – and where listening and understanding eventually result, they become true forms of dialogue as well, however difficult or painful.  “Relations” are not just about  … well, not just about conferences such as this one right now.  And dialogue is more than highly structured harmonious exchange.  Consider for a moment the example of literature alone – Polish literature.  The Psalms of the great Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski, the historical writings of Julijan Klaczko,  the patriotic vision of Adam Mickiewicz, the works of Poland’s great 19th-century woman poet Maria Konopnicka, the writings of Roman Brandstaetter – who died in 1987, the year of Edith Stein’s beatification – are not all of these remarkable figures (two of them Jewish Catholic converts) and their remarkable works key elements in the rich, dynamic history of Jewish-Christian relations in Poland?

Some Jewish perspectives on Edith Stein – the shift in focus from conversion to Shoah

 If we turn to the topic of our conference, I am certainly not the first Jew to consider what I call “the phenomenon of Edith Stein”.  Jewish contributions tend to be highly individual.  Take for instance the lecture on Edith Stein given here by Stanisław Krajewski in 2006:  he focused on his own evaluation of some of the key issues, mentioning only one other Jew, the North American Orthodox theologian David Novak.  The earliest examples I have found of Jewish comment on the life, work and death of Edith Stein date from the 1940s, just as the news of her death here, at Auschwitz-Oświęcim, began to emerge:  a letter in 1945 from her friend Fritz Kaufmann to another Jewish phenomenologist, Marvin Farber; an article by the German-Israeli author Schalom ben Chorin in the New York German-language Jewish newspaper Aufbau in 1949.  Later, in the 1960s, the same Schalom ben Chorin recounted in a few lines his recollection of a conversation about Edith Stein which he had had with Martin Buber in the 1950s:  in fact, this is all we have to connect her with Buber - there is no mention of Edith Stein anywhere in his published writings (including his letters).  In his remarks to Schalom ben Chorin, Buber had concentrated on Edith Stein’s role as a Jewish Catholic convert.  This was something of a theme in the 40s and 50s, a time when the lives and works of several Jewish-born Christian believers – some of them still living then – enjoyed an intriguing prominence in European and North American culture:  Henri Bergson, Eugenio Zolli, Max Jacob, Karl Stern, Simone Weil, Alfred Döblin, Raisa Maritain.  In the US, a priest named John Oesterreicher, born Johannes Oesterreicher,  and originally – how could he not be? – Austrian , wrote a book about 7 Jewish philosophers who had, in his words, “found Christ” – one of them was Edith Stein.  This book, Walls Are Crumbling, went through numerous printings in the US and Britain and was translated into several languages – though not, interestingly, into German or Polish.  In the 1960s, the focus changed for everyone, Jews and Christians alike, in part due to events such as the Eichmann trial and the succès de scandale of Rolf Hochhuth’s play Der Stellvertreter..  The term “Holocaust” was still not in general usage, but the crime it names was assuming a new and unique position in the public consciousness of many communities, nations and institutions – for example, the Jewish people, Germany (then “West” Germany), and the Roman Catholic Church.  In West Germany, then home to a tiny, all but invisible Jewish population of some 30,000 souls,  it was two Jewish authors, Pinchas Lapide and Robert Kempner, who most conspicuously opposed Hochhuth’s case, both of them both drawing attention to the circumstances of Edith Stein’s deportation from the Netherlands in 1942 as part of their polemic in defence of Pius XII.  Today, in the 21st century, the name of Edith Stein, and the case advanced by Lapide and Kempner in the 1960s, continue to figure prominently in one of the most complex and noisy arenas of  Jewish-Christian relations, namely what has been termed the “Pius War”.  Texts accusing Pius XII of culpable silence (or worse) still see the light of day, and they are answered by an equal torrent of literature defending his good name:  some of the writers are Jews, such as Rabbi David Dalin – others are Catholics, such as Sister Margherita Marchione,  the late Professor Ralph McInerny, Joseph Bottum and William Doino.  However, they all quote Lapide and Kempner with warmth and admiration, citing Edith Stein’s deportation as conclusive evidence that any denunciation of Nazi policy by Pius XII would have only exacerbated the Jews’ peril.

The “phenomenon” of Edith Stein: the hermeneutical dialogue of reception

I would like to take a step back now and attempt to shed some light on the backdrop of my own research and the ways in which I seek to examine and describe what I call the “phenomenon of Edith Stein”.  By “phenomenon” I mean quite simply, as you might suppose, the representations and understandings of Edith Stein which have presented  themselves to the consciousness of the various authors, artists, theologians, philosophers, journalists, film makers and others who have had something to say about her over the past six to seven decades. 

This is what is often called a “reception history” nowadays, a hermeneutical survey which addresses the ways in which something from the past – a work of art, a text, an event, a theory – has been subsequently interpreted and given meaning, both by individuals and through larger social processes.  The thinking of two philosophers – it so happens, both connected to the Husserlian legacy – Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur has informed my research:  in particular, concepts of Wirkungsgeschichte, “horizons”, dialogue, text and narrative.  I take the view that there is an  “Edith Stein text” at the heart of the Edith Stein phenomenon – and it is not anything she wrote, although the Edith Stein Gesamtausgabe now runs to over 25 volumes.  No, the Edith Stein text is her life – and her death:  a chain of units resonant with meaning and at the same time proclaiming identities: German, Jewish, woman, philosopher, Catholic, nun, victim of the Shoah.  Saint.  Martyr.  This text found its place within major narratives of the 20th century, I suggest; and all of this took place through a web of hermeneutical dialogue, or rather numberless hermeneutical dialogues, embracing both individual acts of interpretation and larger social processes of assigning meaning (such as canonisation).  Interpreter and the object of interpretation occupy their respective horizons in all these acts:  we bring something of ourselves to our encounter with the phenomenon of Edith Stein – but, I now believe, we take something away, and are changed.

The role of the phenomenon of Edith Stein in the context of various episodes of Christian-Jewish relations

In conclusion, let me try to tie some threads together – as well as tackle the myth of Jewish “protest” against the beatification and canonisation of Edith Stein.  Th creation of the Council of Christians and Jews in Britain took place, as mentioned earlier, during the war.  In fact, the idea seems to have been first mooted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi in March 1942.  In November of that year they launched the CCJ officially, and by this point it had developed into a three-way project, including Cardinal Hinsley, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster.  What had prompted the Cardinal to throw his weight behind the new Council of Christians and Jews?  I would suggest that he was influenced by reports in the premier Catholic journal in Britain, The Tablet (which in fact the bishops had owned till the late 30s).  Although its pages did not include much information about the fate of the Jews that year, The Tablet did publish two short news items reporting the Germans’ deportation of Catholic-baptised Jews from the Netherlands that summer.  There can be no doubt that Cardinal Hinsley saw these reports (as did most probably Archbishop Temple and Chief Rabbi Hertz as well) and it seems likely to me that these reports helped prompt the Cardinal to support the formation of the CCJ.  Next:  Professor Wilhelm Neuss, the lone German Catholic at Seelisberg in 1947.  Neuss knew Edith Stein.  He was a personal friend of her friends, the Spiegels, a Jewish couple who lived near the Carmel in Lindenthal – who both eventually converted to Catholicism; it was through the Spiegels that Edith Stein had first in fact come into contact with the Cologne Carmel.  Wilhelm Neuss visited Sister Benedicta in that Carmel.  And he baptised Dr Lisamaria Meirowsky, a Jewish physician who, like Sister Benedicta, fled to the Netherlands – and who was with the two Stein sisters on that transport to Auschwitz from Westerbork in August 1942.  Finally, what of Monsignor John Oesterreicher?  After Walls Are Crumbling, he never wrote about Edith Stein again.  However, he was the principal author of a perhaps better known text later: Nostra Aetate.

If we turn our attention to Poland, similar histories come to light.  The first substantial article on Edith Stein in Polish, as far as I can determine, was published by one “Jan Drukarz” in Tygodnik Powszechny in 1952.  Like “Juliusz Gorecki”, the lone Pole at Seelisberg, whose real name  was Aleksander Kaminski - head of the Scout Movement before the war and a member of the resistance during the war -  this is a false name, a pseudonym.  The real name of Jan Drukarz was in fact Jacek Wożniakowski – art historian, essayist, decades later mayor of Cracow, he was a leading figure in the Znak organization, in particular head of its publishing house.  And it must be said that long before the Polish bishops had established their commission for dialogue with the Jews in 1985, Znak had played a pioneering role in raising awareness of Judaism and Jewish concerns.  In this connection, let’s look briefly at the year 1968.  On the 25th of February, the “KiK”, the Catholic Intellectuals’ Club, in this case in Wrocław, organised a sesja informacyjna, a study day on the life and work of Edith Stein.  This may well have been the first event of its kind.  Then, a few weeks later, the Archbishop of Cracow, well-known Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, hosted a seminar on the philosophy of Edith Stein, at which the guest speaker was her friend Roman Ingarden, by now in his mid-70s, a retired professor from the Jagiellonian University.  And what lay between these two dates?  March 1968, a unique month in Polish history, a time of intense political upheaval in which issues of political liberty and freedom of expression were to the fore – just as the finest flowering of the “Prague Spring” unfolded next door in Czechoslovakia.  The juxtaposition of these dates cannot have been a coincidence.  In Poland, the phenomenon of Edith Stein embodied two highly sensitive, at the time even forbidden cultural elements:  Jewish and German.  The government’s anti-Semitic campaign of 1967-68 was well under way, and the Polish bishops, in particular Archbishop Kominek of Wrocław, remained under constant attack from the state in connection with their courageous 1965  letter to the bishops of West Germany.  During March itself, professors at the Jagiellonian University had been beaten and thrown down staircases by the police and numerous students arrested.  In extending the invitation to Ingarden, Cardinal Wojtyła demonstrated respect for the university and academic independence; in choosing Edith Stein as the topic, he gave a hint of the sort of pope who would choose to visit the Roman synagogue in 1986.

Little, however, was said about Edith Stein by Jews. In fact, no Jewish organization in the world published anything against the beatification of Edith Stein. My own two articles and one by Susanne Batzdorff, Edith Stein's niece, remained the only comments that expressed a Jewish point of view at that time.

Other topics did concern the Jewish world then very much, indeed: the controversy about the Carmel here, for instance, and the Wilkomirski-affair. And in 1998, the year of Edith Stein's canonization, Jews (and Poles as well) had their own problems again, among others the question of the crosses here at Auschwitz. I do not now wish to dwell on this subject. From August of that year on Jewish readers and TV audiences were spellbound by the Wilkomirski affair, which, however, I do not want to say more about. In Israel again all eyes were directed not at Rome but at an unknown plantation in the United States, called the „Wye Plantation,“ where important Jewish-American consultations were about to take place. At that time I was a student in Jerusalem; I wanted to become a Rabbi. I had got to know Susanne Batzdorff, Edith Stein's niece, in Rome during the event of her canonization, and we were both  enthusiastic that the two of us Jewish people had just come from the canonization that proclaimed a  Jewish woman a Catholic saint. In Israel I did not want to speak about that event too much, because the media did not report about it at all. And as far as the Carmel here is concerned: the Carmel in Auschwitz was never associated with Edith Stein, neither by Poles nor by Germans nor by Jews. And again about the Carmel controversy: Stanisław Krajewski wrote about it in the year 1989. He frequently refers to the events of 1987, but he never once mentions the beatification of Edith Stein.

And I believe, after all, in spite of everything that great discrepancies in our opinions may still lead to enabling us to discuss matters and reach true understanding. Discussion is more than some painful elements, for this discussion has led to the establishment of this beautiful Centre.

Rabbi James Baaden grew up in the United States and Canada and came to Britain over 30 years ago as a student.  He was as a journalist for some years, and then worked as a researcher and planner in the area of health and social policy. He received rabbinic ordination after 5 years’ full-time study and training at Leo Baeck College (London) and the Hebrew University (Jerusalem) in the 1990s, and was then a congregational rabbi in south London for several years.  He left this position in 2008 to become a full-time student again, writing his doctoral dissertation (“The Phenomenon of Edith Stein: Narratives of History and Holiness”) at the University of Oxford.  He divides his time nowadays between Oxford and north London, where he is once again working as a congregational rabbi.

Lecture given at the International Scientific Seminar "EDYTA STEIN ŁĄCZY" [“Edith Stein connects”] on June 8-10, 2012 at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim.
© The author and the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim.


 

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