A Martyr of Auschwitz

This article appeared in the New York Times Magazine, April 12, 1987, just prior to the Beatification of Edith Stein, Sister Teresia Benedicta a Cruce. The author, Susanne M. Batzdorff, one of Edith Stein nieces, is a freelance writer and poet living in California.
On May 1 Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is to be beatified for a holy life that ended in martyrdom at Auschwitz. The ceremony will be at the Sports Stadium in Cologne, West Germany, and my husband and I, Jews and proud of our Judaism, are to be among the invited guests, along with about 20 of our relatives. Teresa Benedicta was Edith Stein, my mother's youngest sister.
Aunt Edith, or Tante Edith as I have always called her, was only 19 months younger than my mother, Erna, and they were always close. They shared a bedroom growing up in Germany at the turn of the century and attended the same schools through their first year of college. When my aunt converted to Roman Catholicism, she first confided in Erna, begging her to break the news to their widowed mother.

And now my aunt, who on Jan. 26, 1987, was declared venerable, will be taking the second of three steps toward possible sainthood, a long and by no means inevitable process. And Joseph Cardinal Hoffner of Cologne has written to say he ''would be happy to be able to greet'' my husband, Alfred, and me at the ceremony, which will mark the first beatification of a Jewish convert in modern times.

As we prepare for the event, we do so amid the backdrop of a controversy precipitated by an often-asked question, raised most recently last October by James Raphael Baaden, an American Jewish writer working on a biography of Edith Stein. In a letter to the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which considers the candidates proposed for sainthood, Baaden asked whether Edith Stein died as she did because she was a Jew or because she was a Catholic. If the former, as he contends on the basis of Nazi policy to kill all Jews irrespective of their conversions to other religions, how can she be beatified as a Christian martyr? In his reply, the Rev. Ambrogio Eszer, postulator of Edith Stein's beatification cause, said, ''To me it is very clear that the motive of the Nazi action was odium fidei, hatred against the church [sic],'' which is required to prove the genuineness of a martyrdom.

I shall go to Cologne, but I am going with mixed feelings. My memories of the past will inevitably intrude upon the present. My brother, Ernst, does not wish to lend his presence, and thus his implicit approval to a proceeding the motives of which he questions.

Edith stein, the last of the 11 children of my grandparents Siegfried and Auguste Stein, was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), on Oct. 12, 1891. It was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. Grandmother, a pious woman, was overjoyed by the coincidence. A year and a half later, Edith's father died, leaving her mother to rear the children and manage the family lumber business.

Edith was a bright child, and excelled in her studies. When she was 19, she entered the University of Breslau. From Breslau she went on to Gottingen University to study with Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology. When World War I broke out in 1914, my aunt joined the Red Cross and became a nurse's aide. Six months later, she resumed her studies, this time at the University of Freiburg, where Husserl had gone. There she obtained her doctorate, with highest honors, and became Husserl's assistant.

Throughout her student years, Edith was spiritually adrift. Though my grandmother was a devout Jew, her children had little knowledge of Jewish matters. The boys knew some Hebrew, enough to be bar mitzvahed, but the girls had almost no Jewish education. Thus, when Edith Stein tells us in her autobiography, ''Life in a Jewish Family'' (first published in Belgium in 1965), that she lost her faith at the age of 15, we must keep in mind that it was not out of a thorough familiarity with Judaism. It is intriguing, however futile, to speculate what might have happened to her spiritual development had she turned to a more intensive study of Judaism instead of Catholicism.

Tante Edith was surrounded by many professors and fellow students who had left Judaism and embraced Christianity, some for career advancement in a time of limited opportunities for Jews, others, such as herself, for purely spiritual reasons. Published accounts state that her reading of the life of St. Teresa of Avila impelled my aunt to convert to Catholicism, but there has always been speculation among her biographers and within the family about what else may have affected her decision. A personal crisis? A romantic disappointment? In any event, she was baptized a Catholic on New Year's Day, 1922.

The new convert yearned for a cloistered life, but her priestly mentors advised against it, to spare her aging mother additional grief. My aunt yielded, and accepted a teaching position at the lyceum and teacher's college of St. Magdalena, in Speyer. She also wrote and lectured widely on education and the role of the Catholic woman. Although not a militant feminist, she strongly favored more options for women, both in religious and secular life.

In 1928 she translated the letters of John Henry Cardinal Newman from English to German. The following year, she published a comparison of the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. Her most ambitious work begun in that period was ''Finite and Eternal Being,'' but it was not finished until 1936.

She was appointed a lecturer in 1932 at the faculty of the German Institute for Scientific Pedagogy, in Munster, an institution under Catholic auspices. Within a year, however, Hitler came to power, and my aunt was dismissed because of her Jewish background. The time was ripe for her to fulfill a long-cherished dream, to join the Discalced Carmelites, a cloistered order whose name derives from their wearing only sandals, never shoes.

For her, it was the right moment to take this step. Not, however, for her Jewish family. She could not have picked a worse time to distance herself from us as Jews, the newly designated pariahs of German society. Hitler's plan of ridding Germany of Jews was already being implemented. Christianity, which Edith had chosen to embrace, was in our eyes in 1933 the religion of our persecutors. For Grandmother Stein, it was the severest blow imaginable. Her daughter Edith was about to enter a cloister in Cologne, a contemplative order with strict rules. She would not be allowed to come home for a visit, ever, and though she could receive visitors, her 84-year-old mother, who had given up all traveling, would never see her again.

Tante Edith had always occupied a special place in the family. She was, for the most part, an absentee aunt, even before she became a Carmelite, but she wrote regularly to all her nieces and nephews. And my brother and I enjoyed reading the humorous playlet she composed for our parents' wedding, and participating with our cousins in the dance skit she prepared for Grandmother Stein's 80th birthday.

When she came to visit, her presence immediately made itself felt. As my brother once put it, she brought a holiday atmosphere with her. To us, she was not a figure of other-worldly scholarly solemnity, but a friend with a delightful sense of humor who could be relied on for annual visits. Until she became a Carmelite nun, that is.

In the summer of 1933, not long before she entered the cloister, Aunt Edith began writing ''Life in a Jewish Family,'' which she hoped would show German readers that Jews were people like themselves, that they were rooted in the German past and loyal to their country. It was futile, for Nazi ideology was not amenable to reason. But I am glad she recorded this family history, for it is an authentic statement about her life.

From her collection of books, which remained in Grandmother's house, I received a volume on each birthday as a gift from my aunt. I still cherish these mementos, which include Rainer Maria Rilke's stories of God and a collection of Hans Christian Andersen. Another treasured keepsake is a message she sent me on Aug. 20, 1933, just before she became a nun. It is a quotation from the 27th Psalm. In a time of fear and uncertainty, a time for me of confusion and doubt, she had written:

''The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?''

I last saw my aunt that October. I was then 12 years old. My younger brother and I had only recently been told about her conversion to Catholicism. We may have been children, but we were very much aware of developments in Germany as they affected Jews. By becoming a Catholic, our aunt had abandoned her people. By entering a cloister, she was proclaiming to the outside world her desire to dissociate herself from the Jewish people. That is how we saw it, and that is how I expressed it to her that October afternoon when she and I chanced to meet at the dentist's.

It was a rare opportunity for me to speak to her alone. I felt awkward and embarrassed, for it was not considered seemly then for children to address grown-ups in a challenging manner. I probably was not very articulate, and my persuasive powers could not have been impressive. But it was characteristic of my aunt that she did not take my words lightly, nor did she condescend.

She remained gravely attentive throughout and then replied that she did not see the step she was about to take as a betrayal. Entering a convent could not, she said, guarantee her safety, nor could it shut out the reality of the world outside. As a Carmelite, she said, she would remain a part of her family and of the Jewish people. To her, that was entirely logical; to us, her Jewish relatives, it could never be a convincing argument. Despite our love for her, a gap had opened between us that would never be bridged.

Her letters from the Cologne Carmel, though written in the familiar hand, were now signed ''Benedicta,'' signaling a deliberate distancing from her past, from an identity rooted in Judaism, from the name given to her by her Jewish parents.

That my aunt did not feel she had abandoned her fellow Jews was evident in the written appeal she sent before entering the cloister to Pope Pius XI, asking for an encyclical condemning the anti-Semitic policies of the National Socialist Government in Germany. Because of her ties to both Catholicism and Judaism and her respected position in Catholic academic circles, she hoped to intercede and effect a dramatic change through moral suasion.

Her bold act proved that she was, indeed, still loyal to her Jewish family and heritage. In a letter written in October 1938 to the Mother Superior of an Ursuline convent in Dorsten, she says:

''I cannot help thinking again and again of Queen Esther, who was taken from her people for the express purpose of standing before the King for her people. I am a very poor and helpless little Esther, but the King who chose me is infinitely great and merciful.''

Her failure to enlist the sympathy of the Holy Father must have been a grievous disappointment.

Right after Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938, when the Nazi persecution of the Jews assumed increasing virulence with the smashing of the windows of Jewish properties, the burning of synagogues and wholesale arrests, my aunt and her superiors decided it would be safer for her and their Carmelite community if she were transferred abroad. On New Year's Eve, she was taken to the Netherlands, and received by the Carmel in Echt. There she continued writing her autobiographical volume and began work on a book about the life and work of St. John of the Cross. It remained unfinished, because the Gestapo took her away on Aug. 2, 1942, together with her older sister Rosa. Inspired by Edith's example, Rosa had converted to Catholicism following their mother's death in 1936, and had been living as a lay person in the extern quarters of the cloister since 1939. Their arrest during a roundup of Catholics of Jewish origin was in retaliation for a forceful protest by the Dutch bishops against the anti-Semitic outrages of the Nazi occupation forces.

I do not believe that Edith Stein sought martyrdom. On the one hand, there are her assertions offering up her life for the church, for world peace, even for the unbelief of the Jewish people. On the other hand, her actions give proof of her determination to save her life and that of her sister Rosa.

When the Carmel at Le Paquier, in the Swiss canton of Fribourg, offered her asylum but said it could not take her sister Rosa, Tante Edith declined. This was the only instance in which she refused outright to be rescued.

From Westerbork, the Dutch staging post for the concentration camps, my aunt still urged, in a hastily scribbled message to her Mother Superior in Echt, that efforts on behalf of herself and Rosa be continued. And finally, the heart-rending notes she dropped from freight-train compartments as she passed through towns where she had once lived and might still be remembered, testify to her last frantic attempts to avert her doom -or at the least to help future chroniclers of these dismal events to track her final journey. She and her sister Rosa were gassed to death in Auschwitz, probably on Aug. 9, 1942. Of those Roman Catholics who died in the death camps, one, the Rev. Maksymilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who volunteered in Auschwitz to die in another man's stead, has been elevated to sainthood.

As I study her writings, I have come much closer to understanding my aunt. But who and what she really was and whether she deliberately sacrificed her life still elude me. Nor do I understand why she changed her religion. When members of her family, trying to understand her conversion, would ask how she drifted toward Catholicism, she would smile softly and say ''That's my secret.''

After the war in Europe ended and my family, which had immigrated to the United States in 1939, learned the extent of the ravages that the Holocaust had wrought among our relatives, my mother grieved deeply for Edith, Rosa, a third sister, Freida, and a brother, Paul, all victims of the Nazi death machine. Tante Edith had, perhaps, been the closest to my mother's heart, because they were closest in age and were not only sisters, but also good friends. But in my mother's eyes, Edith did not wear a halo.

I feel, as did my mother, who died in 1978, that Edith Stein was a human being who accomplished much, contributed to philosophical and religious literature, won the love and admiration of many and died a horrible death. Though she was a Catholic who embraced her chosen faith with joy and devotion, she was not, in the end, separated from those who had remained Jews and were killed because they were Jews.