Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

Manfred Deselaers – Edith Stein brings the Memory of the Shoah into the Heart of the Church

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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.
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