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Gerard O’ConnellAugust 09, 2022
Cardinal Michael Czerny marked the 80th anniversary of the gas chamber killing of the Jewish-born Catholic convert Edith Stein on Tuesday Aug. 9, 2022, by celebrating a Mass at the former Auschwitz death camp and telling the story of his own family’s Jewish origins and their fate with the Nazis. (Flickr/Archdiocese of Kraków)

Cardinal Michael Czerny S.J., visited Auschwitz today to celebrate Mass at the convent of the Carmelite Sisters on the 80th anniversary of the death of Edith Stein, the German Jewish philosopher who converted to Catholicism, joined the order of Carmelite sisters, took the name Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and was put to death in a gas chamber in Auschwitz on Aug. 9, 1942. Pope John Paul II declared her a martyr in 1987 and canonized her in 1998.

The cardinal went to Auschwitz at the invitation of Marek Jędraszewski, the archbishop of Krakow. The Polish archbishop told him in a letter that the sisters have celebrated the feast of Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross’s death at the convent for many years, and since she is the co-patroness of Europe, they invite participants from different countries to the celebration each year.

Cardinal Michael Czerny S.J., visited Auschwitz today to celebrate Mass on the 80th anniversary of the death of Edith Stein, the German Jewish philosopher who converted to Catholicism. 

Since it was Cardinal Czerny’s first visit to Auschwitz, he was given a guided tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum yesterday afternoon, Aug. 8. This morning he participated in a prayer walk at Birkenau, together with the archbishop of Krakow and other Polish and international participants. Bishop Bertram Maier of Augsburg, Germany, who represented the German Bishops’ Conference, concelebrated the memorial Mass in the afternoon.

At the Mass this evening, Cardinal Czerny delivered a very personal homily in which he surprised many in the congregation by telling them, “With Edith Stein, I share Jewish origins, the Catholic faith, a vocation to religious life, and several coincidences with my maternal grandmother, Anna Hayek née Löw (1893-1945).” Edith Stein and his grandmother “were about the same age and came to a similar end,” he said.

In an email exchange on Aug. 8, Cardinal Czerny told me that his grandmother arrived in Auschwitz on Oct. 22, 1944, but unlike Edith Stein, she did not die there because, as the Russians advanced, the Nazis evacuated many prisoners from Auschwitz, including his grandmother, and transferred them to the Neustadt-Glewe concentration camp in Germany, which operated from September 1944 to May 2, 1945. The cardinal’s grandmother, he said, was evacuated in January 1945. She was very ill with typhus and could not make the trip back to Brno. She died on May 21, 1945, and he does not know where she is buried.

Edith Stein and his grandmother “were about the same age and came to a similar end,” he said.

Cardinal Czerny also spoke about his grandmother in October 2019, when he was elevated to cardinal by Pope Francis. To commemorate the event, he reproduced on a card the image of a painting of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt that his grandmother had made before World War II. In his homily, he said her painting “turned out to be a premonition for my immediate family” because in 1948 his parents took him (age 2) and his younger brother and fled to Canada from Czechoslovakia as the country came under Soviet domination. The cardinal’s coat of arms also includes a boat with four people in it.

In his homily today, before speaking about Edith Stein, Cardinal Czerny shared much information about his Jewish roots on the maternal side of his family and the persecution they suffered. He revealed that although his maternal grandparents—Anna and Hans Hayek, and their three children—were all baptized and raised Catholic, they were all interned in Terzin concentration camp, about one hour north of Prague in the Czech Republic, during World War II because of their Jewish descent. His grandfather died in the camp, and his mother spent 20 months in prison in Leipzig and Terzin. His grandmother and two uncles were transported from Terzin to Auschwitz. Afterward, his uncles were sent to labor camps “and were eventually murdered there.” He reported that even though his father, Egon Czerny, was a Roman Catholic without any Jewish roots, he was sent to do forced labor at the camp in Postoloprty, west of Prague, for the last eight months of the war for “refusing to divorce my mother.”

Cardinal Czerny revealed that he first came to know about Edith Stein in the 1970s, when as a graduate student at the University of Chicago he studied the works of Edmund Husserl, the German philosopher who established the philosophical school of phenomenology. Stein was a student of Husserl and later became his assistant. Cardinal Czerny recalled that “the search for truth characterized Edith’s entire existence, and even in the years when she considered herself an atheist and seemed indifferent to questions of faith, her sensitive moral conscience and intellectual honesty led her to reject relativism and subjectivism.”

Her “first encounter with the Cross”—her words—took place in 1917 at the home of a friend, Anne Reinach, who had recently lost her husband, Cardinal Czerny said. Anne told Edith about her husband’s conversion and her own, and how the peace she received at her baptism had prevailed even during this time of loss. Edith “was struck by the serenity that the woman maintained in spite of tragedy: No human force could account for or explain such peace.” She later wrote in her diary, “It was the moment when the light of Christ, Christ on the cross, shone.”

Cardinal Czerny recalled that “the search for truth characterized Edith’s entire existence, and even in the years when she considered herself an atheist.”

The Jesuit cardinal in his homily recalled that four years later at another friend’s house, in the summer of 1921, Edith “came by chance” across the Life of St. Teresa of Avila, and “that night she devoured it avidly and was thunderstruck; she felt something completely new, namely, that truth is objective, it is a “gift”, it is a person, it is Christ! … She understood that God is always ‘beyond’: beyond all reasoning, beyond all phenomena, beyond all human activity.” Later, she would write, “At the moment when the soul encounters God, in the night the light of dawn begins to dawn, a prelude to the new day of eternity.”

Edith was baptized on Jan. 1, 1922. She began a new life. From Easter 1923 to Easter 1931, she taught at the college attached to the Dominican convent of St. Magdalen in Speyer, Germany, and “combined this teaching with study and writing, withdrawal from the world, an intense contemplative life,” the cardinal said. In this period, she met the Jesuit Erich Przywara who invited her to translate into German Cardinal Newman's Diary and Letters, as well as St. Thomas’s Questiones disputatae de Veritatis. The cardinal said all this led her “to seek a harmonious balance between faith and philosophy, and this blossomed into a sense of mission in her vocation as a teacher: to lead her students to the truth. Not only theoretical truth, but also absolute and living truth: God.

Significantly too, he said, on April 12, 1933, Edith Stein “addressed a heartfelt letter to the aging Pope Pius XI urging him to break his silence and speak out against all expressions of antisemitism.” The cardinal noted that “in March 1998, the church formally apologized for failing to take more decisive action during World War II to challenge the Nazi regime about its racist and antisemitic policies and the Endlösung or so-called ‘final solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem.’”

He recalled that “once converted to Catholicism, Edith was increasingly attracted by the charism of the Order of Carmel...with its total devotion to the Virgin Mary and contemplation of spousal love for God.” On April 21, 1938, she made her perpetual profession at the Discalced Carmelite convent in Cologne, choosing the religious name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

Cardinal Czerny is the highest-ranking Vatican official in modern times to have Jewish ancestry.

By then, the cardinal said, “persecution of the Jews was already raging” in Nazi Germany, and Sister Teresa Benedicta was marked by the Gestapo as “non-Aryan,” so her entire Carmelite community was in danger. Her superiors decided to transfer her to Holland, and on the night of Dec. 31, 1938, “Sr. Teresa hastily left Germany” and found refuge at the convent in Echt.

Three years later, however, “Holland ceased to be safe.” Mass deportations to the East began in 1942, Cardinal Czerny said, and on July 20 of that year, the Dutch bishops issued a declaration that was read in every parish “denouncing all racist and antisemitic practices.” Six days later, Hitler “ordered the arrest of all Jews who had converted to Catholicism,” and “on the afternoon of Aug. 2, two Gestapo agents knocked on the door of the Carmelite monastery in Echt to apprehend Sister Teresa Benedicta, together with her sister Rosa.” They were taken to the Westerbork sorting camp in the north of Holland, and on Aug. 7 they were deported with many others to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.

The cardinal recalled that on Aug. 9, 80 years ago, “Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross entered the gas chamber and found death. She crossed the threshold and encountered the bridegroom face-to-face, fulfilling the nuptial pact with the crucified Christ for which, as a wise virgin preserving the oil of love for God, she had prepared herself.”

Nearly three years later, he said, the war ended. Cardinal Czerny’s mother was liberated from Terezín, but his grandfather and both uncles had been exterminated, and his grandmother Anna had died.

He told his international congregation, “So Auschwitz links the witness and scattered ashes of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross with my grandmother’s story and spirit, wherever her remains may lie. For me it is very moving to celebrate Edith Stein’s 80th anniversary and, at the same time and place, the 77th [anniversary] of Anna Löw, to mourn my grandmother and honor her, to think of her reunited with all our family and with St. Teresa Benedicta.”

Cardinal Czerny is the highest-ranking Vatican official in modern times to have Jewish ancestry. He is prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, an office concerned with such issues as justice, peace and migration, and so it came as no surprise that in his homily he drew a link between what happened 80 years ago in Auschwitz and what is happening today in Ukraine, where the war started by the Russian invasion is now in its 167th day.

“The suffering imposed on the Ukrainian and Russian populations, the ever more numerous refugees and victims, oblige us to remember the Holocaust,” he said; “the Holocaust must help us to seriously question the path taken by humanity since the end of World War II nearly eight decades ago.” He concluded by praying for peace in Ukraine and throughout the world “through the intercession” of Edith and Anna and the six million Jews and others who died in the Holocaust.

Correction, Aug. 9: This article originally stated that Bishop Bertram Maier of Augsburg, Germany participated in a prayer walk at Auschwitz. In fact, he did not join the delegation until later in the visit.

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