August 01, 2016

Martyrdom Then and Now

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *
Statue of St. Edith Stein in Brockton, Mass. Credit: WBUR Boston via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Statue of St. Edith Stein in Brockton, Mass. Credit: WBUR Boston via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The brutal end for Edith Stein and her sister Rosa came quickly.  On August 2nd, 1942, the Nazis arrested and transported them by cattle train in route to the death camp at Auschwitz. Days later either on August 8th or 9th, they were sent to the gas chambers–simply because they were Jews.  On October 11th, 1998, the Catholic Church canonized Edith Stein, Jewish philosopher, atheist-turned-Catholic convert, Discalced Carmelite nun, and martyr of the Catholic Church.  She was known in religion as Sr. Teresa, Benedicta a Croce, (St. Teresa, Blessed by the Cross). 

From Darkness . . . 

Born in 1891 the youngest in a large devout Jewish family, Edith Stein’s father died an early and sudden death.  Though Edith admired her mother’s piety, her own faith was giving way to atheism.  

At the University of Freiburg, Edith excelled as a philosophy student.  In the process of earning her doctorate in phenomenology in 1916, she abandoned her Jewish faith.  She was sympathetic toward the prevailing philosophical view that rejected the existence of the soul. Yet two mentors influenced her thinking:  Edmund Husserl (d 1938) and Max Scheler (d 1928), both Jews and Lutheran converts.

Husserl trained his students to look at everything with strict impartiality, for the intellect  has a capacity for receiving truth. Does God exist? Her heart remained open as she searched for an answer to this question. Scheler was convinced that religion alone makes the human being human. Edith was deeply affected and drawn to Scheler’s compelling statements.

. . . Into the Light 

Truth often comes to us through the witness of other people’s lives, a fact Edith experienced in two instances.  Both changed the direction of her life.  

During World War I, Edith’s colleague and friend, Adolf Reinach was killed in battle.  On an invitation to the Reinach home to organize his papers, Edith met his widow Frau Reinach.  Here was a woman suffering intensely, and yet Edith saw only hope and joy in her face. Her rational arguments began crumbling in the face of the mystery of the cross, which eventually transformed her from an atheist to a believer.  Still, the road to the Catholic faith remained at a distance.

While visiting a friend, Edith came across the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila.  After reading it through the night, she put down the book and thought within herself, “This is the truth.”  Teresa’s experience was hers; Teresa’s words were paraphrased: “I was so blind!  Whatever made me think that I could find a remedy apart from you?  Such stupidity–running away from the light.”  St. Paul would call this “the futility of the mind” (Eph 4:17).  Francis Thompson would refer to such a spiritual journey in his soaring autobiographical poem, “The Hound of Heaven:” 

“Naked I wait thy love’s uplifted stroke, 

My harness piece by piece thou hast hewn from me.”

Edith’s eyes were opened, and the road to her conversion, within sight.  She bought a catechism and a Missal, studied them both, and went to her first Mass, after which she asked the pastor to baptize her.  Apprised of her background, he suggested that she read St. Thomas Aquinas, a philosopher and theologian, as a proximate preparation for her reception into the Church.  On New Year’s Day, 1922, at the age of thirty-one, Edith Stein was received into the Church.  Her mother wept with inconsolable sadness.

Integration of Mind, Heart, and Will

Following her conversion, Edith took a teaching position in Speyer at a secondary school conducted by the Dominican sisters.  As an inspiring leader, she won the hearts of the teachers and students alike.  In addition to teaching, she lectured, especially to women.  On one occasion, speaking to them, she declared, “The nation . . . doesn’t simply need what we have.  It needs what we are.”  During her tenure at the school, she developed a spirituality of the Christian woman.

In 1925, the noted philosopher, Eric Przywara, S.J., asked Edith to translate St. Thomas beginning with his disputed questions on truth. His request convinced her of the importance of academics as a vocation to follow. St. Thomas’ works served not only as a path to truth but also as an analytical way to personal experience of God.  For him, there is a unity between the thinking person and the person who contemplates and loves.  As Edith put it, “The perfection of love does not consist in a certainty of knowledge but in an intensity of being seized” (Herbstrith, 86 quoting Stein Thomas von Aquin, I, Teil, 268, 86).     

During those years at Speyer, Edith dedicated herself to a life of prayer, which for her, was the hidden but energizing power of her professional life and her many works of charity. Her public lectures saw the fruit of prayer.  Eventually however, she lost her teaching post because she was a Jew.  

The Cologne Carmel, Kristallnacht, and the Carmel at Echt

In October, 1933, at forty-two Edith asked to be received into the Carmelite monastery at Cologne and was accepted.  Her family was crushed by the decision and could not understand it.  Her last day at home was a Jewish holiday, the Feast of Booths.  She went to synagogue with her mother, and the next morning, left for Carmel.  

On November 9th, 1938, Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass,” as it came to be known, the Nazis intensified their persecution of Jews. During this year, a large-scale offensive was enacted against the Jews, and thousands were forced to leave Germany.  Edith grieved for those victimized by racial hatred, especially over her family and friends. 

With the horror of Kristallnacht, the German Jews abandoned all hope to live in peace.  “All through the night, Jewish citizens were rounded up, driven from their homes with Billy-clubs, and their businesses were demolished or confiscated.  In a matter of hours, their lives as members of German society had been destroyed.  Even the synagogues had been burned” (Herbstrith, 164).  Germans and Jews alike now understood that any public outcry on their part would be met with ruthless and immediate punishment.  

It was becoming more dangerous for the Carmelites in Cologne to house Edith and her sister. On New Year’s Eve, Sr. Teresa Benedicta  and Rosa were transferred to the Dutch Carmel of Echt.  Two years later when the Nazis occupied Holland, they rounded up all Jews who were now forced to wear a conspicuous yellow star.  The Carmel in Switzerland offered her asylum, but as there was no room for Rosa. Edith felt she must decline their assistance.  

From Westerbrook to Auschwitz

In his journal dated July 30th, 1942, Dr. William Harster, the Commanding Officer of Security Police and the Public Security Administration in charge of The Hague, wrote among other entries: “Since the Catholic bishops have interfered in something that does not concern them, deportation of all Catholic Jews will be speeded up and completed within the coming week.  Noappeals for clemency shall be considered” (Herbstrith, 191).

Four days later, Sr. Teresa, her sister, and twelve hundred Dutch Jews were arrested and put on a train to Westerbrook, a transitional concentration camp in Holland.  “Come, Rosa, we’re going for our people,” she declared. 

Early in the morning of August 7th, Number 44074, Edith Theresia Hedwig Stein, and her sister Rosa were brought to Auschwitz, Poland.  August 9th is the date assigned to their death in the gas chamber there.  In 1979, a friend of Edith Stein, Father Johannes Hirschmanns, S.J. wrote that although Auschwitz remained a place stripped of love, it also revealed that the Cross was stronger than hate.

Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings 

In 1938, even as Hitler’s threats engulfed Europe, the American composer Samuel Barber wrote his Adagio for Strings. Full of pathos that evokes tears, it is perhaps the most intense eight minutes of music of the twentieth century, music that parallels Edith’s life.  Inch by inch the gentle, circular melody ascends.  It intensifies to a climactic crescendo sending shivers up and down the spine. Suddenly, abruptly, the music breaks off.  After a tense moment of silence, it resumes, as if whimpering, then dies away. 

Atrocity in Nice, France

At this writing, a complete report about the gruesome murder in Nice of Father Jacques Hamel last Tuesday is unavailable.  Why did the two Islamic assailants choose the quiet Normandy town of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray to carry out their execution—the words are almost impossible to pen—the cutting of Father Hamel’s throat … and at the time of the celebration of Mass?  Why did the assailants record the chilling assassination as it was taking place?  The parish church had not been registered as high risk.

Trembling, Mayor Hubert Wulfranc broke down in tears and could hardly speak: “A brutal act of barbarism has taken away our priest and gravely wounded a parishioner.” He was speaking for the entire town for whom Father Hamel was a beloved figure.  One after the other, they recalled the priest’s dedication and holiness.

Rushing back from World Youth Day, Archbishop Dominique Lebrun of Rouen commented after Father Hamel’s assassination:  “The only weapons the Catholic Church can take up are prayer and fraternity among people.”

Here is another example that recalls the terror in the early Church when known Christians were rounded up and brutally murdered simply because they called themselves Christian. May the soul of Father Jacques Hamel rest in peace.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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