Edith Stein's niece on what her canonization means for Catholic-Jewish dialogue

Edith Stein ca. 1938-1939 (Wikimedia Commons) Edith Stein ca. 1938-1939 (Wikimedia Commons)

This article originally appeared in the February 13, 1999 issue of America.

America published 10 years ago an article I wrote on the subject of Catholic-Jewish relations with the title "Catholics and Jews: Can We Bridge the Abyss?" (3/11/89). My aunt, Edith Stein, had been beatified on May 1, 1987, in Cologne, and I was writing with that event fresh in my mind. Frankly, I had not expected that the church would proceed so quickly to the canonization of Edith Stein, who is also known as Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, the name she received when she became a Carmelite nun in 1933. When it became clear that the canonization ceremony would happen in my lifetime, I was once again confronted with the questions: Should I attend? How would this experience differ from that of the beatification?

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As it turned out, the canonization in Rome last October was similar to the beatification in some ways, but different in others. For the citizens of Cologne, a papal visit was a unique event, and on that May day in 1987 it seemed as if the whole city had turned out to take part and rejoice. In Rome, however, canonizations, especially under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, are frequent—averaging 14 each year—and the city takes these events in stride.

In Cologne, on the day following the beatification, bookstore windows were full of books by and about Edith Stein. In Rome there was none of that. The Cologne event was mostly a German happening, whereas in Rome it was an international event. Many delegations had come from abroad, with large banners declaring their places of origin. The Pope greeted these groups of pilgrims in their own native languages, and they applauded enthusiastically.

As for Edith Stein’s family, the turnout was much larger this time. Twenty-one family members attended the beatification. At the canonization there were 97, representing three generations. It was sobering to realize that on that day of the canonization Aunt Edith would have been 107 years old if she had lived. Among the very few people present who had actually known and could remember her were two nieces and one nephew.

The settings of the two ceremonies were also different. In Cologne, it had been a sports stadium; in Rome, it was the historic St. Peter’s Square. As some reporters noted, the ceremony in the square was observed from the basilica’s heights by gigantic statues of the apostles—“The Jews who had founded the original church, witnessing another Jew being received into the community of saints of the church.”

The canonization of Edith Stein stirs up painful remembrances of the past.

From our seats we had a close look at the Pope as he entered the square. Illness and the burdens of his office in the 11 years since our last encounter had taken a visible toll on him. We were saddened by this decline in his health and vigor.

In those 11 years since the beatification, I have translated texts by and about Edith Stein, and have myself written and spoken about her life and work. I have also tried to create better understanding between the Jewish and Catholic communities. It is a complex task.

During the two weeks prior to our departure for Rome last autumn, I was besieged by the media. Radio, television and various newspapers asked searching questions that once again challenged me. Some reporters even remembered statements I had made in 1987 and 1988. “Have you changed your mind?” they now asked. “Do you feel that the church has made progress since then?” “Do you feel honored, glad, angry?” My response is complicated. To be invited to the canonization of Edith Stein as one of her closest relatives undoubtedly constitutes an honor, but it stirs up painful remembrances of the past.

In the months preceding the canonization, I had occupied myself intensely with the past. Shortly before leaving for Rome I had read some thought-provoking statements by Jews and Catholics about the role of Edith Stein, either as a bridge for interreligious understanding or, conversely, as a hindrance to such efforts. Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ episcopal moderator for Catholic-Jewish relations, quoted reassuringly from a 1987 “Advisory to the Nation's Catholics”:

In no way can the beatification of Edith Stein be understood by Catholics as giving impetus to unwarranted proselytizing among the Jewish community. On the contrary, it urges us to ponder the continuing religious significance of Jewish traditions with which we have so much in common, and to approach Jews not as potential “objects” of conversion but rather as bearers of a unique witness to the Name of the One God, the God of Israel.

The Cardinal then quoted a comment made by Rabbi Daniel Polish in his contribution to a volume of essays that first appeared in Germany in 1990, Never Forget: Christian and Jewish Perspectives on Edith Stein (1998). In his essay Rabbi Polish wrote: “While we cannot embrace the notion that Edith Stein will serve as a bridge [between Jews and Catholics], we can see the occasion of her canonization as opening a door to significant discourse.”

"[W]e can see the occasion of her canonization as opening a door to significant discourse.” –Rabbi Dan Polish

I had myself “given birth” to two books about Edith Stein. I served as editor and translator of the English language edition of Never Forget, the collection mentioned above. I also wrote Aunt Edith: The Jewish Heritage of a Catholic Saint (1998). The concluding chapter of the latter, “In the Spirit of Catholic-Jewish Understanding,” is an attempt to update the status of the difficult Catholic-Jewish relationship from what it was in 1987 and even to attempt a prediction of the future by observing the present trajectory.

My awareness of being Jewish dates back to the 1920’s, when I was in first grade. The school in Germany that I attended was publicly supported but under Catholic auspices. A crucifix hung in every classroom, and the school day began with prayers. One day my teacher called me to her desk and told me that my parents had requested that I be dispensed from making the Sign of the Cross and joining in class prayers. I was somewhat puzzled, but no further explanation was offered. Obediently, I henceforth refrained from crossing myself and participating in prayer. I was also excused from the religion classes, in which all my classmates learned about the Christian faith. Our classroom was decorated with many colorful scenes from the life of Jesus, of which I knew nothing.

About this time I became friends with another little girl in my class. One day she met me after religion class, dissolved in tears. When I asked the cause of her distress, she told me that she had just learned that the Jews killed Jesus. She knew that I was a Jew, and she did not want to believe that I was such a wicked person. Naïve as I was, I tried to comfort her by saying that I knew nothing about this, that neither I nor anyone in my family had ever killed anyone. I assured her that she must have misunderstood something. It was my first encounter with anti-Jewish teaching in the framework of Christian religious instruction. Fortunately, this kind of instruction ended more than 40 years later with the changes introduced since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

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In the Spring of 1933, when, because of her Jewish birth, my Aunt Edith had been dismissed from her teaching position in Münster and was thinking about her future, she conceived a bold plan: She would seek an audience with Pope Pius XI and plead with him to issue an encyclical denouncing anti-Semitism. Her efforts were nobly, but perhaps a bit naïvely, conceived. She was informed that this was a holy year, and for that reason the crowds making pilgrimages to Rome were so large that there was no prospect that Edith Stein could be received by the Pope in a private audience. The best she could hope for was to be admitted as part of a small group. She decided that would not serve her purpose and instead sent a letter to the Pope in which she set forth her plea in detail. As far as I know, this letter is still among the sealed documents of the Vatican; we only have her own description of this incident: “I know that my letter was delivered to the Holy Father unopened; some time thereafter I received his blessing for myself and for my relatives. Nothing else happened. Later on, I often wondered whether this letter might have come to his mind once in a while. For in the years that followed, that which I had predicted for the future of the Catholics in Germany came true step by step.”

When on Oct. 11, 1998, we were admitted to a private audience with Pope John Paul II, it was a bittersweet reminder of Aunt Edith’s vain attempt to gain a similar private audience with Pius XI in the spring of 1933. An opportunity to give the Pope a very urgent message that might have had historic consequences had been allowed to slip by. Was it really important for me, a Jewish relative of Aunt Edith, to have a three-minute conversation with the present Pope? I am not sure. At any rate, I used my private moment with him to give him my book as a gift—my loving tribute not just to Edith but to the memory of my relatives and our family life in the Breslau that used to be.

In her desire to bring about better understanding between Christians and Jews, Edith Stein was ahead of her times. Sadly enough, it took the horrors of the Shoah, the Holocaust, to bring about the far-reaching changes that began with Pope John XXIII’s decision to convene in 1962 the Second Vatican Council, from which those profound changes flowed. Edith Stein was only one of the millions who were killed because they were Jews. In her plea to Pope Pius XI, she spoke for the people from whom she was descended.

Neither Edith Stein’s letter nor the arguments of other, more prominent personages impelled Pope Pius XI to issue an encyclical condemning anti-Semitism. It is often said that his encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, published in 1937, was a response to Edith Stein’s plea. This document, however, was not issued until four years after she wrote her letter, and it did not mention the Jews. When the Pope charged John LaFarge, S.J., and two other Jesuits to draft an encyclical on the topic Edith Stein had mentioned in the spring of 1933, that document was long in the making. The encyclical was never issued, and its draft became widely known only in 1997. It has recently been revealed how circuitous the road toward this draft was, and the actual text shows that the prejudices of the past had not been shed by its authors. Jan H. Nota, a Dutch Jesuit who located and analyzed the text of this draft of Humani Generis Unitas (“The Unity of the Human Race”), as it was entitled, found so much outdated theology in the document that he said, “God be praised that this draft remained only a draft!”

The church has come a long way since that time. Vatican II brought the church into the modern era by facilitating contact among the various branches of Christianity and encouraging innovative thinking. Vatican II also opened a new relationship with the Jews through its “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” This document, published on Oct. 28, 1965, declares, “The church repudiates all persecutions against anyone” (No. 4).

With his facility in many languages and his willingness to travel the globe, even now, at the age of 78 and in ill health, Pope John Paul II has managed to build bridges where hitherto seemingly unbridgeable gulfs existed. He listens to Jewish concerns. Wherever he travels, he usually arranges a meeting with representatives of the local Jewish community. When controversy arose concerning the establishment of a Carmelite monastery adjacent to the death camp at Auschwitz, the Pope saw to it that a different site was chosen.

In 1993, John Paul II established diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel. In 1994, he sponsored at the Vatican a concert commemorating the Shoah. Earlier on, in 1986, he made a historic decision—he paid a visit to the great synagogue of Rome, the first pope ever to go there. On that occasion, he clearly condemned anti-Semitism and addressed the Jews as “our elder brothers.” He also recalled the deportations of the Jews of Rome during the Holocaust. These actions and statements of John Paul II have been welcomed in Jewish circles. They stand in sharp contrast to the policies of the Vatican during the rise of National Socialism.

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On July 20, 1933, the Vatican concluded a concordat—a kind of mutual non-interference agreement—with the Hitler Government. It was signed by Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, then the Holy See’s Secretary of State and later Pope Pius XII. I remember clearly that the news of the signing of this concordat had a devastating impact on Germany’s anti-Nazis and especially upon Jews. At that time, the Vatican could have taken a stand against Nazi ideology and against Hitler’s program of bigotry and belligerence without any risk at all. In fact, as the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholics in Germany, Pius XII could have persuaded a large segment of the German population to recognize the incompatibility of National Socialist programs and policies with the moral principles of the church. Instead, the pact boosted the prestige of this disreputable new German chancellor in the eyes of the world.

While much evidence has been collected concerning the role Pius XII played during the war years in which the Nazis carried out the fiercest persecution of the Jews, not all the pertinent documents needed for an objective report are yet available. Therefore, rather than belaboring the history of the past, let us look at important steps that have recently been taken by the Vatican.

On March 16, 1998, a 14-page document entitled “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” which had been 11 years in the making, was released by the Holy See. While it expresses remorse for the failings and transgressions of individual Catholics, this statement appears to absolve “the church” as an institution from any guilt in the Holocaust. It also draws a distinction between the “anti-Semitism” of the Nazis and the “anti-Judaism” found in the general society. The initial Jewish reaction was mixed. However, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in a speech before the American Jewish Committee in Washington, D.C., on May 15, 1998, clarified some points. He urged his listeners not to read this document in isolation from statements already issued by the episcopal conferences of several European countries and from those made by Pope John Paul II. Those who are working diligently in the field of Catholic-Jewish relations, people like Rabbi James Rudin and Dr. Eugene Fisher, associate director of the National Council of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, point out that this document, while imperfect, represents an important step along the road to greater openness. It gives the lie to Holocaust deniers and can serve as a teaching tool. It ends with the following inspiring message:

We pray that our sorrow for the tragedy which the Jewish people has suffered in our century will lead to a new relationship with the Jewish people. We wish to turn awareness of past sins into a firm resolve to build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Judaism among Christians or anti-Christian sentiment among Jews, but rather a shared mutual respect, as befits those who adore the one Creator and Lord and have a common father in faith, Abraham.

In general, however, Jewish leaders expressed disappointment and dismay with the statement. They noted that members of the Catholic hierarchy in Germany, France and Poland have issued statements that go much further in accepting responsibility for the failures of the church in the Nazi era than this Vatican document does. Jewish voices are also calling for an opening of the Vatican archives to permit access to documents pertinent to the Holocaust, so that the full truth can be ascertained.

It is clear to me then that the debate about Edith Stein today focuses on this question: Is she a figure for reconciliation or a figure of controversy in the Catholic-Jewish dialogue and an impediment to the effort at rapprochement? This question comes up every time the name of Edith Stein is in the news. It has been hotly debated and argued even among her relatives. There is something troubling to those of us who are Jewish in regarding as a symbol for Jews a woman who turned away from Judaism and embraced Christianity. But let me cite again Cardinal Keeler's insightful statement: “Her intellectual and spiritual journey, from which Catholics have so much to learn, is presented as her own, a model for Catholics, not a model for Jews.”

In her own family, Edith was only one of four siblings who fell victim to the Nazis. Moreover, to speak of Edith Stein’s going to her death “for her people” poses a problem for Jews. Christians consider the death of Jesus to have been redemptive. By his sacrifice, he atoned for the sins of the people. In contrast, my Aunt Edith was killed alongside millions of Jews. Her suffering and death could not save the others. It was a death she did not choose, could not choose and could not have avoided. It was a death that did not stop the killing of others and did not give a religious meaning to the slaughter. It was a fact that Edith Stein died in solidarity with “her people.” Even though she had left the Jewish fold, she was finally, in an ironic twist, reunited with them in death. She was resigned to that fate, but she had no control over it. It was rather due to the Nazis’ definition of who is a Jew. It was because she was born Jewish, of Jewish parentage, that she became a “Martyr in Auschwitz.”

[M]y Aunt Edith was killed alongside millions of Jews. Her suffering and death could not save the others.

In a small way, the family of Edith Stein mirrors the whole human family. Just as the members of the Stein family could come together for the canonization despite their different backgrounds and beliefs, so Jews and Christians can come together in an atmosphere of peace and good will. They can open a dialogue to reach some understanding and find a way to bridge their differences. In the confines of the extended Stein family, we find various religious allegiances represented. At times our discussions can become quite heated, but we respect each other's right to differ. After the political upheavals that scattered us in all directions, we refuse to allow ideological or religious differences to tear us apart. Our basic entity as family must remain a unifying principle.

Christians and Jews have already come a long way toward closer rapprochement and better understanding, but our work is not finished. We must learn about each other’s beliefs and ideology with open minds and mutual respect, conceding to each other the right to be different, to worship in our own ways.

One final word about forgiveness. The Jewish people cannot forgive the perpetrators of the Holocaust or those who stood by in silence. The survivors cannot forgive the death of the victims. We can, however, listen to the mea culpa of those who are truly repentant and leave forgiveness to God. If we examine our past and admit our mistakes honestly, we can go forward confidently and work together for common goals. And with God’s blessing we can go about the task of tikkun olam—repairing the world.

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