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Remembering Edith Stein, Remembering the Holocaust

You may be aware that since the year 2000 the 27 January has been designated as Holocaust Memorial Day, you may have even heard about an event that takes place in your local area. Here in the UK Holocaust Memorial Day remembers not only the victims of Nazi persecution before and during the Second World War, but also more recent genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. 

Holocaust Memorial Day addresses a message to all people of whatever nationality, race, or religion, 'remember the past so that it may not happen again'. Hopefully all readers of this article can say 'Amen' to that sentiment. However does it address any specific questions and challenges to Christians? Although the Nazi regime was fundamentally anti-Christian and Christian leaders were among its targets, nevertheless the question arises as to how it could have come to power in a country and a culture that was traditionally Christian, and could its victimisation of the Jews been more strongly opposed by Christian leaders? Needless to say these questions have been widely examined over subsequent years, and it is not my intention in this article to try and summarise the different positions that are held.

One of the methods of the Nazis was to rob people of their unique identity as human persons before robbing them of their lives. A visit to the memorial museum at Auschwitz / Birkenau enables the visitor to see how this was done. However a visitor to the museum will also see a new exhibition that tells the story of the lives of some of those who were murdered there. It is but a small attempt to remind the visitor that the victims were real people, who lived real lives, and in this way at least reclaim a little of the humanity that the Nazis tried to destroy.

One such victim of Auschwitz who might be of particular interest to visitors to this website is Edith Stein, who is also known as Sister Teresa Bendicta of the Cross, who in her own words was both 'a daughter of Israel and a daughter of the Catholic Church'. In learning even a little about her we help to reclaim her humanity and through doing so for her, we can help affirm the humanity of all the victims of the Holocaust.

Edith was born in 1891 into a German Jewish family and grew up in the city of Breslau. The family were not particularly religious but certainly observed all the traditions and family rituals that surrounded the major Jewish feasts and festivals. However when Edith left home to begin her own life the religious part of her upbringing was left behind too. Edith studied philosophy and went on to make her own contribution to her chosen subject. At the age of thirty she happened to read some of the writings of St Teresa of Avila and as a result underwent a conversion experience. Following the required period of preparation she was baptised choosing Teresa as her baptismal name.

When the Nazi persecution of the Jews began in 1933 Edith was forced to resign her post as a lecturer. She saw this as the opportunity to follow her desire to try her religious vocation, and after a tearful farewell to her family she entered the Carmelite convent in Cologne. As the situation in Germany continued to deteriorate in 1938 Edith was transferred to a convent at Echt in Holland. The following year she was joined by one of her sisters, Rosa, who had also become a Catholic, and who became a Carmelite Tertiary. However even Holland was not safe for them. When the Nazis occupied Holland in 1940 all Jews had to make themselves known to the Gestapo and they were subject to the same persecutions as the Jews in Germany. At first those Jews who had become Christians were left alone, but when the Christian leaders of Holland protested against the deportation of Jews the Nazis moved to arrest and deport baptised Jews too. So it came to pass that Edith and her sister Rosa were arrested and deported to 'the East'. Edith's last words to her sister were, 'Come, we are going for our people'. In all probability they were murdered at Auschwitz on 9 August 1942. Edith was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1998 and in 1999 also declared to be a co-patron Saint of Europe.

During the few months she spent at her family home after losing her job and before entering the Carmelites Edith began writing an auto biography which was not to be published until many years after her death. Nevertheless her motivation for writing this work is significant. She recognised that those people who had contact with Jewish families were indeed outraged by what was going on in Germany at that time, but that there were many others who had not had that experience and who were thus easily swayed by the racial hatred that was being promoted by the regime.  Edith thus saw it as her duty to give an account of her Jewish upbringing so that others could be better informed and thus less susceptible to racist propaganda.

So as well as learning about Edith Stein as one of the six million Jews to be murdered in the Holocaust and in remembering her also remembering the others, we can also learn from her example to be as fully informed as possible about all the different races and religious groups that make up our local communities today. Is it conceivable that in our difficult and challenging times voices will emerge blaming all our problems on one particular group and turning the rest of society against them? One of the messages of Holocaust Memorial Day is that if we think that we should forget the past because 'it could never happen here' then we have taken the first dangerous step to making it a possibility. May it not be so.



Father Eddy Jarosz has recently completed an MA in Interreligious Relations and he wrote his Dissertation about the Canonisation of Edith Stein.