Saints and Nazi Skeletons
A Jewish-born Carmelite nun murdered at Auschwitz and due to be canonised by the Pope in October, is claimed to have been betrayed to the Nazis by a high-ranking Benedictine monk.
Blessed Edith Stein – a Jewish-born Carmelite nun murdered in Auschwitz in August 1942 &150; is to be canonised by Pope John Paul II on October 11th. Though she is undoubtedly a true martyr, she may have been sent unnecessarily to her fate by a Benedictine priest known to have been working with the Nazis.
As the millennium approaches, the Catholic Church is striving to close the books on the nagging issue of its treatment and relationship with the Jews. The moral aftermath of the Second World War still haunts the civilised world, and hardly a day goes by when no new revelations of omission and commission come to light.
While Pope John Paul II has done more for Christian-Jewish relations than any other pope, his decision to canonise the Jewish-born German philosopher Edith Stein, only eleven years after the controversies that surrounded her beatification, is bound to reopen old wounds.
During the beatification ceremony in Cologne in May 1987, the Pontiff called Stein ‘the Martyr Saint of Auschwitz.’ While acknow-ledging the Jewish roots of ‘the daughter of Israel’ and asserting that her baptism ‘was by no means a break with her Jewish heritage’, the Pope’s comments spawned a heated debate within the Jewish community: Stein was murdered because she was born as a Jew, and not because she was Catholic. Some felt that the Church’s decision to beatify her was designed to obscure its controversial policy of silence and the relationship between Pope Pius XII and Hitler.
Edith Stein was born in Breslau, Germany (today Wroclaw, Poland) on October 12th, 1891. Her father died when she was two, leaving her mother to run the family's lumber business. While her mother adhered to Jewish tradition, religion played no part in Edith's life, and the pretty young girl, an acculturated and assimilated proud German, declared herself an atheist at the age of fourteen. Upon completing the Gymnasium, she studied psychology in Breslau, before switching to philosophy and she became one of the few women admitted into the inner circle of the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl in Goettingen.
Although she was both brilliant and sociable, Stein wrote extensively about the academic and emotional difficulties she encountered in Goettingen in her unfinished autobiography Life in a Jewish Family. ‘Little by little I worked myself into a state of veritable despair,’ she wrote, ‘I was dedicated to my work, but I never gave up my dream of true love and a happy marriage.’ But her romantic involvements were fraught with difficulties. Her fellow student Hans Lipps did not propose marriage as she had hoped, and her relationship with another young phenomenologist, Roman Ingarden, turned into a lifelong correspondence when he returned to Krakow at the onset of the First World War.
A true Prussian patriot, Edith volunteered as a First World War Red Cross nurse, whereas several of her fellow students and her mentor, Husserl’s assistant Adolf Reinach, volunteered for combat. When Reinach, who had just converted along with his wife Anna, fell at the Eastern front, Dr Stein secured his old position as Husserl’s assistant. But unlike Reinach who taught seminars, her duties were secretarial and the young woman became increasingly lonely and disillusioned. Germany’s defeat and the death of her close friend left her shattered at the end of the war.
Edith wrote very little about her conversion. ‘It’s my secret,’ is the one sentence she has left. She recounted her visit to Reinach’s widow Anna, whom she found unexpectedly serene and composed through her new-found faith in Christianity. Stein herself converted to Catholicism on January 1st, 1922.
Her spiritual counsellor, the archabbot of the Benedictine monastery in Beuron, with whom she developed a warm relationship, objected to her plan of immediate entry into a convent. For the next ten years Stein, having privately taken on the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, taught at Catholic institutions. In 1933, when the Aryan racial laws were implemented in Germany, she lost her teaching position, and, to the anguish of her Orthodox mother and her siblings, several of whom had begun to make preparations to leave Germany, Stein entered the Carmelite convent in Cologne. But the forty-two-year-old novice (now known as Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) was politically astute and farsighted. ‘They will find me in here,’ she told a friend at her clothing ceremony, which was officiated by archabbot Walzer, an ardent anti-Nazi. Shortly after this, Walzer was denounced to the Gestapo by his subordinate Pater Herman Keller, on trumped-up charges of illegally smuggling Reichsmarks.
In 1936, Edith Stein repeatedly and desperately asked to be transferred to the safety of the Carmel in Bethlehem. Pater Keller, though, was sent there on ‘disciplinary measures’ following the allegations against archabbot Walzer. In fact, Keller was working as a secret intelligence agent for Hitler’s espionage organisation, the Abwehr, as well the infamous Sicherheitsdienst run by Reinhard Heydrich. ‘Keller was a double agent and he was spying for Egypt,’ a Vatican source has suggested. The abbot of the Dormition in Jerusalem adds,‘He travelled back and forth between Jerusalem and Cairo. He knew everybody. He was well connected to Hitler's ally, the Grand Mufti.’
Keller was well acquainted with the famous convert, his former abbot’s protegée. Yet Stein’s attempts to be transferred to Bethlehem came to nothing. Did Keller influence the Patriarch of Jerusalem’s decision to deny her access to the Holy Land?
After Kristallnacht, the pogrom of November 9th, 1938, it was no longer safe for the nuns in Edith’s Cologne convent to associate with, let alone harbour, a non-Aryan nun. And so, hastily, asylum was found for her in the Carmelite convent in Echt, in neutral Holland.
On Sunday August 2nd, 1942, Edith Stein, with her sister Rosa (also a convert), as well as other Jewish-born nuns and priests, were arrested by the Gestapo in retaliation for a courageous Pastoral by the Dutch bishops that condemned the deportation of Holland’s Jews. The Christian Jews were deported to Camp Westerbork and several days later they were sent to Auschwitz. On August 9th, 1942, Edith was killed.
As for Keller, after a stint in Jerusalem, he was sent first to Rome and later to Paris on assignment. At the end of the war, when the Allies were looking for him, Keller ‘disappeared’ in a convent. He died in 1970, having ‘selflessly contributed his extraordinary knowledge of theology’ to the Benedictine sisters in Mariendonk in the Rhineland.
During the last year of her life and up to the very last moments before her deportation from Camp Westerbork, Stein frantically sought refuge for herself and Rosa in a convent in Switzerland. ‘I could imagine that under these particular circumstances an exception would be made,’ she wrote. But no exceptions were made and her final hopes for church asylum were thwarted by Rome.
Edith Stein may well be a martyr – but has she been designated such to atone for sins committed over fifty years ago by a Church that would neither listen nor speak out? Her death symbolises the inhumanity of the Nazis and the complicity of the Church.
But today – after the sadly inadequate statement by the Vatican ‘We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah’ – the woman with the Jewish spirit who dreamed of bridging the gap between Christians and Jews, fighting for belief and against dogma, is a martyr indeed: a martyr for the human fallibility of the Church.
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