‘We are going for our people’: the life of Edith Stein

Posted Thu, 04/16/2020 - 16:19 by MCS

For Yom HaShoah, Canon Edward Jarosz, priest of the Catholic Diocese of Nottingham, and alumnus of CCJ’s Yad Vashem seminar writes:

In talking about the Shoah we often talk in numbers, for example 6 million Jewish lives taken across Europe or some 1 million Jewish lives taken in Auschwitz/Birkenau alone. However, if we only think in terms of numbers we risk losing sight of the fact that each victim was a unique person with their own life story, gifts, talents, problems etc.

One such person who might be of particular interest to members of CCJ is Edith Stein who in her own words was ‘a child of the Jewish people and also a child of the Catholic Church’. However even that self-description will not sit comfortably with everyone and will already make us aware that any discussion about her life and death will present potential challenges to the dialogue between Jews and Christians that CCJ seeks to foster.

Some basic facts about the life of Edith: Edith was born in 1891 into a German Jewish family and grew up in the city of Breslau. Her 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. At this point she also felt the calling to follow a vocation to be a religious sister.

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 both murdered at Auschwitz on 9 August 1942.

During the time she spent with her family in 1933, between leaving her academic post and entering the convent, Edith wrote a letter to Pope Pius XI asking him to speak out against the persecution of Jews in Germany. It was in this letter that Edith described herself as ‘a child of the Jewish people and also a child of the Catholic Church’. What effect, if any, the letter had is a topic beyond the scope of this particular blog post, and is still much discussed by scholars and historians of that period.

Turning to her death at Auschwitz it is clear that Edith was sent there because of being ‘a child of the Jewish people’ but also that the particular circumstances of her arrest and deportation were as a result of her being ‘also a child of the Catholic Church’. Her last words ‘Come, we are going for our people’ are also difficult to understand. They show a continuing identity with the Jewish people but also a Christian understanding of how one can offer up suffering and even death for the sake of others.

At the end of the last century Edith was canonised as a saint in the Catholic Church and also named as a co-patron saint of Europe. The appropriateness of such events was questioned by some involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue, but many others, not least members of Edith’s family, worked hard to overcome any misunderstandings. As we mark Yom HaShoah we can number Edith (and her sister Rosa, and also two other siblings) as victims of the Shoah. We reflect of her life not as a pattern for others to follow, but as a unique life lived fully for over 50 years before being cut short at Auschwitz.