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John A. ColemanAugust 08, 2012

On August 9 every year, the church celebrates the ' martyrdom' of the Carmelite Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross ( Edith Stein) who was gassed at Auschwitz that day, seventy years ago. I put the term ' martyrdom' in quotations, since Edith Stein was murdered by the Nazis for being Jewish and only, secondarily, ( and out of spite!) for being Catholic. The Roman Catholic Bishops of the Netherlands ( as I recounted in my book, The Evolution of Dutch Catholicism, University of California Press, 1978) had publicly issued a pastoral letter denouncing the Nazi's Jewish policy of deportation and pogroms. Led by the intrepid Cardinal Johannes de Jong, the Dutch bishops had been warned that, if they proceeded to publish their denunciatory letter, the Nazi authorities would go after Jewish converts to Catholicism as well.

I had the pleasure about four years ago to see an opera based on Edith Stein's life, composed by Jonathan Gilbert and John Tarbet, at St. Peter's church in New York City. The opera did show some of the ambiguity of some Jewish groups to declaring Edith Stein a martyr for the Christian faith. There had also been a large dispute between Jews and some Catholics about the presence of a Carmelite monastery and a cross on the site of Auschwitz ( where Polish Catholics as well as Jews had been gassed!). Stein who eagerly embraced her Catholic conversion, never really fully cut herself off from her Jewish roots. She was born in Breslau on October 12, 1891, the youngest of eleven, as her Jewish family was celebrating Yom Kippur. Edith's mother ( widowed when Edith was only two) was a strongly devout Jew. Edith always deeply loved her mother, although as a young woman Edith abandoned any explicit practice of Judaism. " I consciously decided, of my own volition, to give up praying", Edith later said.

I have always hoped that the Catholic Church would declare Edith Stein a Doctor of the Church. She studied, first, at the University of Breslau where she was an active member of the Prussian Society for the Woman's Franchise. It would not hurt the church to have a feminist scholar among its doctors! In 1913, Edith transferred to Gottingen University where she became a teaching assistant to the renowned philosopher, Edmund Husserl. In Gottingen, Stein also met the philosopher Max Scheler who directed her attention to Roman Catholicism.

During World War I, Edith cut short her studies to serve as a field nurse in an Austrian field hospital, where she treated the sick in a typhus ward and worked in an operating theatre. In 1916, she followed Husserl to the University of Freiburg where she wrote her doctoral thesis on " The Problem of Empathy". During this period of study, she went to the Frankfurt Cathedral where she saw a woman with a shopping basket going to kneel for prayer. " This was something totally new to me. In the synagogues and Protestant Churches I had visited, people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot." In her doctoral dissertation she had written:" There have been people who believed that a sudden change had occurred within them and that this was a result of God's grace."

Stein had wanted to obtain a professorship but that was not possible in 1918 for a woman. Husserl, however, wrote for her the following reference:" Should academic careers be opened up to ladies, then I can recommend her whole-heartedly and as my first choice for admission to a professorship."

In 1921, while visiting a friend, Stein read the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila. She spent the whole night reading it and said later :" When I finished the book, I said to myself, This is the truth.". Later she said of her life; " My longing for truth was a single prayer." In 1922, Stein was baptized on the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus, when Jesus himself had entered God's covenant with Abraham. She reflected: " I had given up practicing my Jewish religion when I was a 14 year old girl and did not begin to feel Jewish again until I had returned to God." After her conversion, she taught at a teacher training college in Speyer and was encouraged by a Benedictine Abbot to accept extensive speaking engagements on women's issues. She translated the letters and diaries of  Cardinal Newman and translated Thomas Aquinas' Questiones Disputate de Veritate ( On Truth).

In 1931, Stein left the convent school and devoted herself to getting a professorship. She wrote her main philosophical-theological work, Finite and Eternal Being. She was offered a position at the Institute for Educational Studies at the University of Munster in 1932. But in 1933, Hitler's Aryan law made it impossible for Stein to continue teaching. She noted: " I had heard of severe measures against Jews before. But now it dawned on me that God had laid his hand heavily on his people and that the destiny of those people would also be mine.". Stein, finally, entered the convent of the Carmelites in 1933. She went home, first, to visit her mother and went with her to the synagogue on The Feast of Tabernacles. Her mother died in 1936.

Stein saw continuities between her new Christian faith and Judaism. She once said: " I keep thinking of Queen Esther who was taken away from her people precisely because God wanted her to plead with the king on behalf of her nation. I am a very poor and powerless little Esther, but the King who has chosen me is infinitely great and merciful. This is a great comfort.". Because of the growing anti-Jewish strictures in Germany, Stein was smuggled across the border to the Netherlands to the Carmelite Convent in Echt. She made there her last will on June 9, 1939:" Even now I accept the death that God has prepared for me in complete submission and with joy as being his most holy will for me. I ask the Lord to accept my life and my death so that the Lord will be accepted by his people and his kingdom may come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world.". While in Echt, Stein finished her study of John of the Cross' mysticism, entitled: Kreuzeswissenschaft-- The Science of the Cross.

In retaliation to the Dutch Bishops' letter, the Gestapo came on August 2, 1942 to arrest Edith and her sister, Rosa, like Edith a convert to Catholicism.Edith's final words to Rosa before being deported were: " Come, we are going for our people.". A professor friend of Stein's said of her: " She is a witness to God's presence in a world where God is absent.". When he beatified Edith Stein in Cologne in 1987, John Paul II said the church was honoring " a daughter of Israel who, as a Catholic during Nazi persecution, remained faithful to the crucified Lord Jesus Christ and, as a Jew, to her people in loving faithfulness.". Surely, in honoring her, the church points to her clear bonds to the Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust.

Edith Stein had a prayer whis is apt: " Who are you, kindly light, who fill me now and brighten all the darkness of my heart ? You guide me forward like a mother's hand and, if you let me go, I could not take a single step alone. You are the space, embracing all my being, hidden in it and what name can contain you ? You, Holy Spirit, you, eternal love!"

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Thomas Piatak
11 years 7 months ago
Edith Stein was killed because she was a Jewish convert to Catholicism.  The Nazis sent Stein and other Jewish converts to Catholicism in the Netherlands to the death camps because the Catholic bishops of the Netherlands issued a pastoral letter protesting Nazi actions toward Jews.  Jewish converts to Protestantism in the Netherlands were not deported when Stein was precisely because the Protestant churches, which had planned on joining the Catholic bishops in condemning the Nazis, decided not to do so.

The Dutch bishops' pastoral letter may be read here:  http://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2012/07/70th-anniversary-of-pastoral-letter-of.html
David Howard
11 years 5 months ago
Good points, numbers 14 and 15. Edith WAS indeed a Christian martyr. Most of you who disagree are looking at the idea of martyrdom from the wrong side. The martyr is someone who gives his life for the faith. Edith Stein was an enormously intelligent woman. She clearly knew the dangers of staying in Europe, yet she “chose” to remain to pray for her people, her Church, and Europe’s persecutors. When she had an opportunity to leave to a monastery in Switzerland, she refused, choosing to remain in Netherlands until her sister could accompany her.

Those who want to argue that Edith was not a martyr, please try to look at the situation more with your heart instead of your prejudices.
Kang Dole
11 years 7 months ago
I have to admit that her comparison between herself and Queen Esther made me feel a bit sick-my honest, instinctual response.
Thomas Piatak
11 years 6 months ago

I encourage you to read my link, including the portion citing Peter Gumpel, S. J.  According to Fr. Gumpel, the Nazis did not deport Jewish converts to Protestantism to the death camps in August 1942, precisely because the Dutch Protestant churches had not joined in the Catholic bishops' public protest against Nazi policies.  Thus, if Edith Stein had coverted to Protestantism instead of Catholicism, she would not have been deported in August 1942.  In fact, according to Fr. Gumpel, the Nazis made clear, following the Dutch bishops' letter, that they regarded Jewish converts to Catholicism as their "worst enemies." 
Anne Chapman
11 years 7 months ago
Thank you, John Coleman, for putting ''martyrdom'' in quotes. It's very unfortunate that the Catholic church has shown such stubborn insensitivity to this issue - honoring Edith Stein is fine if they think her life merits it, but they should not imply that she is a Catholic ''martyr''. 

She did not die because she was a Catholic - she died because she was a Jew. Some question the Catholic church's motives in honoring her for her ''martyrdom'' while failing to explicitly acknowledge that the overriding reason for her death was because she was of Jewish heritage. 
Tim O'Leary
11 years 6 months ago
Jeanne #8 and 11
You are obviously very invested in the idea that St. Edith did not die for her faith. I will try one more time and then you can pray also to see what is true.

There was a small minority of Jewish converts to Catholicism who were specifically targeted because they were of Jewish ethnicity and Catholic belief. They we're uniquely arrested because the Nazis wanted to punish the Dutch Catholic Church for their vocal opposition. In the case of Edith Stein, she did not try to avoid giving witness, unto death. 

When Jesus was executed by the Romans, he said, ''forgive them, because they know not what they are doing''. So, the Romans may have thought they were killing a rebel.. The Pharasees may have thought they were killing a blasphemer. Neither knew that He was giving Himself up for the salvation of mankind, including them. So, again, the ultimate gift is not determined by the ideology of the killers, but by the mind and heart of the person being killed.

While 6 million Jews were killed for solely being of Jewish ethnicity, and 6 million Christians were killed in the gas chambers for a variety of equally diabolical reasons (Slavs, Poles, Priests, gypsies, prisoners, homosexuals, mentally deficient, etc), Edith Stein had the unique dual status of being killed because she was a Catholic Jew (not a Protestant Jew, or a secular Jew, etc).

In Revelations, the martyrs have a special honor in heaven. It seems to deny St. Edith that honor is neither reasonable nor charitable.
Crystal Watson
11 years 7 months ago
Agree with Abe and Anne. Sometimes it seems like the church exhibits an unecumenical fervor about those who have converted to Catholicism.
isabelle andrews
11 years 6 months ago
Abe,  Sr. Benedicta believed herself to be a bride of Christ, tbe Divine King.  This was and is still, for many,  the meaning of the vows of a religious.  Many nuns may still wear a wedding dress and veil at final vows. Her analogy, a''poor Esther'', was simply to place herself as a supplicant  to the King for her loved ones and all the suffering Jewish people. Most of us imagine a kinship to the saints of the Old and New Testaments. Mourners identify with Mary, sufferers with Job, stumblers  with Peter. Edith was a convert to the Church of that time, a Church that I remember as very different from that of today. We were taught that the unbaptized righteous would spend eternity in Limbo. deprived of the ''Beatific Vision'' of G-d. 

Jeanne Linconnue
11 years 7 months ago
Tom, the author mentioned that as a ''secondary'' factor - the Nazis wanted to get back at the bishops.

But the fact remains that Edith Stein, her sister and other converts to Catholicism from Judaism were killed because of their Jewish heritage. They were not sent to death camps because they were Catholic.  Protestant converts to Catholicism were not sent to the death camps. Nor were cradle Catholics.

If she had not been Jewish, Edith Stein would not have been sent to the death camp.
Ashley Green
11 years 6 months ago
Thanks Tim O'Leary for your articulate and compelling clarifications on the matter of St. Edith Stein's martyrdom.  The cynical and dismissive tone of some of the objectors posting here is truly apalling.
Tim O'Leary
11 years 7 months ago
Thanks Maria, for the quotes from St. Edith.

Several comments above and the attitude of the general secular culture evince an overly political and jealous small-mindedness in resenting the recognition of Edith Stein with the title martyr. Martyr means witness for the faith, and, of course, St. Edith was a great witness for Christ, unto death. The honor is given to the soul who gives her all for the love of Christ, and does not depend on the reasoning of the mind of her killers.

Furthermore, to give primacy to St. Edith's genetic/ethnic categorization over her freely chosen Catholicism is in effect to buy into the Nazi ideology, which put the genetic above all else. 

St. Edith, pray for us.
Kang Dole
11 years 6 months ago
Isabelle, I appreciate your response to me, and I do not doubt anything that you say-nor do or did I begrudge Edith Stein her right to interpret her own life story as she saw fit.

My visceral reaction, now that I’ve reflected on it, stemmed from the unhappy irony of the identification—an irony the edge of which comes as much from the aptness of the comparison when viewed in greater depth, as much as the more immediate sense of its wrongness.

In the Book of Esther, it is Esther's king who enables Haman's plot—Ahasuerus is nothing if not a boor, but boor or not, he's still the Great King, and he bears responsibility for giving his blessings to Haman's plans. That important fact about Esther's king—which I suppose people find easy to forget—is part of what adds a spike of pain to Stein's analogy. Maybe most of the bitterness is because Stein wasn't simply joined to God (her King), but also to the Church—and whereas Ahasuerus lets Haman's actions slip into motion through his own dullness as much as anything else, the Church's enabling of Hitler's plot was rooted in a far more complicated history. It's based on all of this that I made reference to the aptness of Stein's identification with Esther.
But there's one difference that is especially glaring. This, of course, is the plain fact that Esther's pleading with her king is effective—the boorish Ahasuerus is swayed by her intercession. But who received the mercy of Stein's “infinitely great” king? She says she was taken away from her people to plead on their behalf, but what did her pleading amount to? What was the species of great comfort that she claimed to take from her merciful king?
Jeanne Linconnue
11 years 7 months ago
Mr. O'Leary, nobody is suggesting that Edith Stein not be honored by the Catholic church. But the fact remains that the reason she was sent to the death camps was because she was Jewish. 

To attempt to downplay the fact that her Jewish heritage is the reason she died and not other Catholics or converts to Catholicism from non-Jewish religions seems to some to deny the central reality of the Holocaust - Jews were murdered because they were Jews.

To most people the term ''martyr'' signifies that someone died because of their religion. Edith Stein did not die because she was Catholic.  She may indeed have been a martyr but Edith Stein was a Jewish martyr. She was also an outstanding Catholic witness to the Christian faith. But her Christian witness was not thereason she was sent to the death camp.

To trivialize or ignore or downplay the central reality of why she died is what ''buys into'' Nazi ideology.

 Acknowledging that her death - her martyrdom - came about because she was Jewish has nothing to do with ''secular culture'' or ''jealousy'' or ''smallmindness''.  Instead, those who seem to deny that Edith Stein's death was because of her Jewishness rather than her ''Catholicness'' might be seen as ''small minded''. 
Amy Ho-Ohn
11 years 6 months ago
I think Tim (#15) makes a good point: the criterion for Catholic martyrdom is not that the one doing the killing professes to be killing the martyr for the Catholic faith. That is far too restrictive. St. Maximilian Kolbe was not killed for being Catholic either; he was sent to Auschwitz for assisting Polish civilians. Franz Jägerstätter was killed for draft-dodging.

Joan of Arc was executed for witchcraft, but nobody calls her a Wiccan martyr because, duh, she wasn't practicing witchcraft. And in the same way, Edith Stein wasn't a Jewish martyr, because she wasn't practicing the Jewish religion. Akiva ben Joseph was a Jewish martyr. Edith Stein was killed for her Jewish ancestry, but it is not possible to give witness to one's DNA.

On the other hand, the canonization of Edith Stein and the frequency and vehemence with which she is cited by Catholics can't avoid calling attention to the very loud silence between the accolades: far more Catholics were on Hitler's side than against him and the Church authorities of the time played virtually no role at all in resistance. The commandant of the Jasenowac death camps was a Catholic priest. Joey Ratzinger likes to make a big song and dance about how much his family disliked Hitler, but his father never lost his government pension, which suggests he managed to mute his objections.
Tim O'Leary
11 years 6 months ago
William #16 A minor point on Mengele. While one could classify him as a dissenter on the Church's pro-life and human rights positions, I think the record indicates he had long left the practice of Catholicism when he joined the secular ''Church'' of Nazism. He was no more a Catholic than Richard Dawkins is an Anglican or Stalin was Eastern Orthodox. As Jesus said (Mt 6:24) ''no one cannot serve two masters.''
Jeanne Linconnue
11 years 6 months ago
Maria, yes, there was a ''retaliation'' against the bishops letter involved.

That does not change the fact that she died because of her Jewish heritage.

Why is that so hard for some people to acknowledge? 

If she had been a convert to Catholicism from Calvinism in Holland, she would not have died. If she had been born a Catholic she would not have died. Those who were born Catholic or Protestant weren't dragged out of their homes or churches or monastaries or convents - only those who were born into Judaism.

She and the other Jewish converts to Catholicism died first and foremost because they were born Jewish.  This is not martyrdom because she was Catholic, but martyrdom because she was originally Jewish. 

There is no problem with the church choosing to honor her life and death. But it should be done in a way that does not seem to deny the central reality that caused her death - the central reality of the Holocaust - she and six million others were put to death because they were Jewish.

OK, if some simply refuse to get the point, there is nothing that can be done about it. But they might want to pray a bit and reflect a bit on why they choose to not get the point in this matter.

11 years 6 months ago
I like to think of Edith Stein as a Catholic Jew (a Jewish Catholic?), and believe she would want her death to be an ecumenical event. Being Jewish she was denied an academic post. She also has good credentials to be a feminist victim of gender inequality. Husserl's second-best student, a white male Nazi supporter, progressed unimpeded to become the greatest philosopher of the century (Heidegger). Edith's work on empathy was a masterpiece of phenomenology and was far ahead of its time. This Jewess/Catholic was likely still wearing her nun's habit when she was met at the Auschwitz train by a declared Catholic, Josef Mengele. 
Tim O'Leary
11 years 6 months ago
Amy #19
I think you are partly right in your criticism of those German Catholics who supported Hitler, at least in the early years, seeing in him a political reformer bringing ''hope and change'' after the Weimar fiasco and the economic depression. They ignored many warnings such as the growing disregard of civil rights abuses as they hoped their financial situation would improve. Many Catholic clergy spoke out against Hitler's actions but it could have been even stronger. Many Catholics disapproved in silence but did little or nothing politically. Most Catholics chose to give primacy to the political over the moral and spiritual.

But, before anyone think only Germans could be susceptible to this temptation, look at what is happening today in America, regarding a seemingly benign government and it's infringement of conscience and religious rights. It always starts small and grows if left unopposed.  Also, American Catholics used to be united against the crime of abortion but many have looked the other way when they voted in recent years. 

We are always in need of saints to stand up and challenge us, to awaken us from our moral slumber and desire to put politics above the good.

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