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Aunt Edith - the Catholic saint who was born a Jew and murdered as a Jew. August 9 is her Yahrzeit


1891 – 1942

She was born Edith Stein and chose to be named: Theresa Benedicta of the Cross


Edith Stein's Yahrzeit (Memorial Day) is here, every August 9th. On that day, as one who has gained sainthood - her name will be honored in all the Carmelite monasteries in the world, in Catholic churches in general and in European churches, because there she is called not only "saint and martyr" but also - "Patroness of Europe"!

Together with my Carmelite friends, with whom I have a deep and meaningful friendship, August 9th is a day of deep contemplation of our identities - both collective and personal.



My relationship with Edith Stein


There is no family connection between Edith Stein and myself! Until I came to guide in Carmel I did not even know who she was. I learned her story thanks to the Catholic Church 'Stella Maris', where I guided and told her story in front of the marble plaque with a cross, a Star of David and her name on it. I was amazed with her character, I was struck by her story. I later learned something significant from her that I aspire to apply in my life. Something unrelated, neither to Judaism nor to Christianity, but related to the quality of humility.


The history of a Jewish family


Siegfried and Auguste Stein moved to the big city of Breslau (southwestern Poland) in 1890. The youngest daughter, Edith, was born in Breslau on Yom Kippur in 1891, and she, with her six brothers and sisters (there were four other siblings who died aged 1-3) was orphaned from their father in 1893.

In her book "Life in a Jewish Family", Edith describes the daily life of her widowed mother, dressed in black, who runs the business of her late husband, raises 7 children and while maintaining vitality and vigorous work. Unlike the previous generation, her children were well educated. Edith was the pinnacle of academic achievement: as an outstanding student she went on to academic studies and at the age of 25 already had a doctorate in philosophy.

Breslau, now Wrocław in Poland, a city that passed from hand to hand, was German, both in character and in language in those days. Breslau was a city of education and culture, and also had a renowned Jewish rabbinical institution. Edith chose a particular path in academic studies: at that time philosophy was under the great spell of the phenomenological current, an intellectually demanding discipline. After graduating with honors from the University of Breslau she went on to Göttingen where she graduated with honors her doctorate from one of the greatest in the field: the philosopher Edmund Husserl. She was his assistant and later published articles, translations and books. Two understandable limitations curtailed her academic development: Edith was born a woman, and worse: a Jew.


"Where did I go wrong?" - The successful daughter is baptized into Christianity


Much has been written about Edith Stein, and even the entry in the Hebrew Wikipedia is sound and informative. What does not appear, is the personal story of the widow Auguste, Edith's mother. The one who kept the house chores and the business but also made sure to sit immersed in the prayer book in the synagogue, read the Psalms every day (also in German!) and maintained a kosher Jewish home. She did not imagine what would happen in 1922, when she was informed that Edith, her youngest daughter, had been baptized into Christianity. No doubt she asked herself "where did I go wrong?". Once again the question arose too sharply in 1933, when in the wake of rising Nazism and rising anti-Semitism, Auguste was informed that her daughter had chosen to become a nun in a convent.


Dressed in her habit and in white "wedding dress" during her consecration to life under monastic vows.


Edith Stein has spent days and nights reading books, since childhood. Books of all kinds. One day, after completing her doctorate, she came across a 16th-century autobiography "The Life of Theresa", written by the famous nun Theresa of Avila. Theresa of Avila was not a 'regular' nun, but a monumental personality, who influenced all those around her: nuns who left a convent to live the new way outlined by Theresa (a branch called "Discalced Carmelites"), John of the Cross - the monk influenced by her so deeply to create himself a renewed branch of the male Carmelite order, and also influenced bishops and church leaders at the time. 400 years later -she influenced Edith Stein.


Theresa of Avila was declared a saint a short time after her death and later earned the title reserved for men only: "Doctor of the Church." The words in Theresa of Avila's book hit Edith, and after years of self-definition as an atheist - she chose the path of faith, chose to join the faith in Jesus – and chose it in the Catholic version. From that moment of choosing the path of faith - she wanted to join the order of Theresa of Avila - the Discalced Carmelite order. It would happen some years later, but in the meantime Edith chose a new name for herself - Blessed Theresa from the Cross!



Marble slabs in the Carmelite church of Stela Maris in Haifa: One slab depicts the 1. hands of Edith Stein stretched towards the cross 2. a Star of David 3. a barb wire and 4. the book of the Life of Teresa of Avila. The other slab depicts the light that shines inside (and above) the "Interior Castle" - an image of the soul explored by St. Teresa of Avilla in her book "The interior Castle".


conscious of her Judaism, she chose to accept the Christian religion on "Jewish" dates from the biography of Jesus:

Edith chose to be baptized into Christianity on January 1, the date Jesus entered into the covenant of our father Abraham (the circumcision of Jesus), and she chose to have the Sacrament of Confirmation on February 2 - the date on which Jesus was brought to the Temple for the "redemption of the firstborn" (Luke chapter 2).

The date which is dedicated to her in the ecclesiastical calendar - August 9 - has no Jewish connection. After all, she did not choose the date of her death: August 9 is the day she was burned at Auschwitz, after being taken out from her convent because of her 'Jewish blood'.


 

Is it possible to be both Jewish and Christian?


For Christians, the answer to the question of whether it is possible to be both Jewish and Christian is not as charged and as conflictual in comparison to Jews. In the language of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, many Christians will answer that

"They are Israel in spirit and hence their identification with Judaism and the Jews".

More than once, I heard a Christian telling me:

"I am a Jew - not in the flesh, but in the soul, in love for the people of Israel and in identification with Jesus, Miriam and the apostles."

Of course, not every Christian is enthusiastic to identify with Jewish identity, but there are certainly some who do. For Jews who were baptized into Christianity (like Brother Daniel, Cardinal Lustiger, Sister Paula, and others) it was clearer: they found this dual identity as integration rather than schizophrenia.

But the story of Edith Stein / Blessed Theresa from the Cross, is even far more complex and poignant. The issue of the integration, or merging, of Jewish and Christian identities in the context of the Holocaust –has raised resentment nervousness. Storms erupted from the depths of the hearts of Jews, especially those who survived the Holocaust.


Edith Stein saw herself as marching with Jesus, and when the Nazis entered the monasteries to get "Jewish-blooded monks and nuns" - she expressed her identification with the suffering, as if marching like the Jewish Jesus to the cross!

She was burned at Auschwitz as a Jew, but the church termed the action - martyrdom, that is: paying the price of life for loyalty to God. A martyr is one who chooses death over an alternative of denial of his/her faith.

Many harsh words were uttered by the Jewish side when she was declared a saint and martyr of the church:

"Edith Stein's blood is on Christian hands who are now washing their hands clean" and

"the church practices “Have you murdered and also taken possession?” (1 kings 12:19)

"The church seeks to make itself a victim, but the victim was brought to the stake because of her Judaism and not because of her Christianity!"

And in general, another argument has been made against the term "martyr" in this context:

"God did not ask for human sacrifices during this time of the Holocaust, and the extermination of the Jewish people, is not a religious category of 'proof of devotion to faith'."



Depictions of Edith Stein in icons , identify her Jewishness through the The Yellow star

The monument in Koln, Germany, depicts her sited holding the star of David,

and walking to her death with the crucified Jesus


There was a time when the wound was painfully opened when Carmelite nuns (the order into which Edith Stein entered) wanted to establish a monastery in Auschwitz. The uprising of Jewish organizations from all over the world prevented the initiative. But in the Vatican, a niche was dedicated to the saint, in which this statue was placed: Edith Stein holds a cross, a crown of thorns and a Torah scroll on which is written in Hebrew "Shema Yisrael".




 

Why the title "Aunt Edith"?


Years after I learned, connected to and taught her story, I had the opportunity to guide a couple of elderly Jews from California, donors to an organization in Israel. Such guiding trips were my “income supplement” at the beginning of my career as a lecturer. While traveling, occasional personal conversations would start between a guide and her tourists. I told them about being a lecturer in Christianity to Jewish people and how challenging and charged this teaching is because of the Jewish context.

"Do you have an example?" The tourists asked, and I answered - "The story of Edith Stein". I expected them to ask who that character was, but the older tourist was stunned, paused for a moment and then said, "Aunt Edith."

What are the chances that I will be actually guiding Ernie Bieberstein, a tourist from California, who is also Edith Stein's nephew??

A month later I received in the mail a package from California with a book written by Ernie's sister, about their aunt: Aunt Edith- The Jewish Heritage of a Catholic Saint. Also a photo of the family's meeting with Pope John Paul II before the canonization and more.




What gift do you give to a pope who sanctifies your aunt?


The Polish pope chose to sanctify German the Jewess who was murdered in Poland in two procedural steps: In 1987 he declared her Blessed - "Beata" - the preliminary stage before full sanctification.

In 1998 he announced her a Saint - "Sancta". He later Declared her "patroness of Europe" (along with the saints Brigitte from Sweden and Katrina from Siena).

Edith Stein's Jewish relatives were invited to both events. My tourists from California were there as well. In a personal meeting prior to the ceremony, the family presented a gift to the Pope: An painting of the synagogue in Breslau where Auguste Stein used to pray. A synagogue that was called Neue Synagoge (built in 1872) which went up in flames on Kristallnacht, in 1938.

Below the illustration of the synagogue was the quote from Edith Stein's writing "How I came to Carmel in Cologne":

For weeks I had searched my mind for ways to do something on behalf of the Jews. Finally I decided to ask the Holy Father to write an encyclical and submitted my request in writing. Some time thereafter I received his blessing for myself and for my relatives. Nothing else happened.



 

Good intention alongside the inconceivable gap in understanding.


Out of interest in the character of Edith Stein, I followed her to Speyer, the place where she was baptized, and to Koln, the convent she entered. (I still have to visit Breslau and Echt - the monastery in the Netherlands to which she was transferred in order to save her from Nazism in Germany and eventually taken from there to Auschwitz).

I corresponded with the Prioress of the convent in Koln, and arrived at the meeting at the time we had set. Everything was strange, on the verge of surreal:

First - the Mother-Prioress was called 'slave'... Mother Ancilla (ancilla in Latin means - slave girl, and the reference is to the answer given by Mary to the angel: "I am the handmaid of the Lord").

Second: The convent was not at all the convent where Edith / Theresa lived - and not even in the same location - because the previous structure was bombed and destroyed during the war. Third and last: At the end of the meeting, Mother Ancilla gave me a gift:

some postcards, and she presented me with - a relic. A relic of Edith Stein, Saint Theresa blessed from the cross !!!

What remnant is there of someone who was burned with thousands of other Jews in the same furnace??? The answer - of course there is no remnant of her body, but there is a tiny piece of the white wedding dress she wore while being consecrated as a nun in the convent in Koln. The piece is laid in an elliptical pendant: on the one side - the picture of Edith Stein dressed as a nun and on the other - the tiny piece of the white cloth.


What did Mother Ancilla think when she gave me, the Jew, the only remnant that touched the body of the daughter of my people, who converted to Christianity and was then burned at Auschwitz? Of course she had no idea that Relics veneration has a whole world of meaning in which Jews have no part. She with all her heart and mind, thought I would be greatly moved, physically hold the relic and emotionally embrace the experience of integration between Judaism and Christianity through it. She acted out of goodwill, and I - I wondered what to do with the inconceivable gap in understanding.


Me, with the pendant of the relic which I received from Mother Ancilla. I photographed it against the backdrop of the postcards that she gave me of Edith's consecration to the convent. The bigger relic is presented in Speyer's cathedral: a larger piece from the dress is placed inside a reliquary in the shape of the star of David.

 

What have I learned from Edith Stein

Apart from telling the amazing story of Edith Stein, and arriving with groups from time to time to Speyer and Koln (with my colleagues - Prof. Effie Shoham Steiner and Nurit Gotthelf), I learned an important trait from her humility.


It was something that she said when she undertook a monumental intellectual project: The translation of the writings of the philosopher Thomas Aquinas from Latin into German. When asked about the work of the translator (who needs to be a great intellectual in the first place to understand Aquinas' writings) - she answered: "The translator should be like transparent glass: Let the light pass without leaving the colors of the translator. "


I took this message as an ideal that I should strive for as a lecturer, a guide and an educator. To put it other words that are relevant to those involved in imparting knowledge to students and listeners: conveying a knowledge should be like light that shines through a transparent glass: no involvement of ego. Give up the tempting colorfulness of the "I". If one manages to give up the "I" in order to be humble transmitter of the pure message - then maybe in itself this can be counted as a kind of martyrdom, and for that one can share with the saints...


* in the following link - https://katzr.net/5c2fc9 - a recording of a TV report in Israel about the event of the sanctification of Edith Stein. In the report, another niece who lived in Israel, is interviewed about Aunt Edith.

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