Catholics and Jews: Can We Bridge the Abyss?

This article appeared in “America”, March 11, 1989. It was written by Susanne Batzdorff, who was born in 1921 and is one of Edith Stein’s nieces. She is a devout Jewish woman who now lives in Santa Rosa, CA.

It was a great honor to receive the 1988 Edith Stein Guild Award and especially to share it with my good friend Josephine Koeppel (OCD). Our work in connection with the translation of Edith Stein's autobiography [Life in a Jewish Family (ICS Publications, 1986)] first brought us together more than 10 years ago, and since then we have grown in mutual respect and understanding. I worked closely with her on editing and refining this translation and served as a resource for family and cultural milieu and authenticity.

That cooperation symbolizes, in a way, our endeavor to promote cooperation, mutual respect and understanding for human beings who may have different beliefs and ideologies, but who must live together in a troubled world.

In reflecting about the reasons for having been given the award, I recognize its connection with my particular effort concerning the life and work of my aunt Edith. While my mother was still living, she kept in touch with many people who were interested in Edith Stein, who wanted information of some kind or who were linked to Edith in some way. At times my mother received these people in her home; at times she wrote to them. She also tried to correct errors and misunderstandings found in publications about her sister. She was our family's link to the public. I have since taken over that role as best I can, maintaining a file of published material, letters, pictures and the like. I try to correct false impressions and factual errors. Obviously, I did not know my aunt as well as her own sister did, but there are many things I remember. I also lived in my grandmother's house for the first 12 years of my life and can thus testify to what family life in that house was like. Moreover, through my correspondence and published articles I try to interpret the Jewish viewpoint in the Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

I have learned two things of some importance:

1. The tremendous proliferation of “legendary material” and the liberties taken with historical fact are mindboggling. Stories that are either wholly or partially untrue have been stated as fact and then repeated. To correct such a factual error is almost impossible, for it attains a stubborn life of its own and drives out the true fact.

This recognition leads me to say that if this is happening while eyewitnesses who remember the facts and can vouch for their accuracy are still alive, how much more fanciful will the legend grow in another few decades, after these eyewitnesses are gone? I counteract this tendency by providing corrective information, but it seems at times futile —like putting one's finger in the dike to stem the mighty tide. Even if errata are subsequently corrected, these corrections are not always seen by those who read the original story.

2. The job of achieving understanding between Christians and Jews must be ongoing. Constant effort, good will and diplomacy must be employed to further this goal. Those who agree that peaceful coexistence is desirable must work for it, but we must do so with our eyes open. It will not help to declare that differences between the faiths are unimportant, that there is really only one “Judeo-Christian ideology.” If we do not comprehend where we differ, we will not discover what unites us. Wishful thinking is not a firm foundation to build on. Recognition of the facts of history and what they teach us is important. The cross, for instance, has a wholly different meaning for the Christian than for the Jews.
The Rev. Edward Flannery, in the introduction to his book The Anguish of the Jews (1965) tells of a young Jewish woman's reaction to seeing a huge illuminated cross at Christmas time, “That cross makes me shudder. It’s like an evil presence.”

In talking to her Father Flannery learned why she saw fear and evil in a symbol that to him meant universal love and redemption. Her view was colored by centuries of suffering by Jews at the hands of Christians. Pogroms, inquisitions, forced conversions and crusades were perpetrated in the name of Christian zeal and caused death and destruction to thousands. And the most virulent tide of anti-Jewish action, under National Socialism, was able to built on a pre-existing foundation of Christian anti-Semitism that regrettably often emanated from the pulpit.

Even in our own time, here in the United States, we have such an example of the subversion of the cross as a symbol when the Ku Klux Klan uses that symbol of universal love to express bigotry and hatred.

As I told the press before and after my aunt’s beatification, Edith’s choice to become a Catholic was a blow because of what Christianity had done to the Jews in the past. Her entry into Carmel came at a moment when the Jews were threatened by Christians as never before.

The irony and tragedy of Edith Stein’s life was that in following her conscience on the road to Christianity she felt that she was pursuing her Jewish path to its ultimate goal. But it is impossible from the Jewish perspective, to see it that way. For Jews, the Christian faith is not the natural culmination of Judaism, but another path, another truth. We cannot accept the thesis that “the Old Covenant is fulfilled in the New.” Judaism is a religious entity, a system of beliefs and teachings that carries its own fulfillment, its own messianic hope and goals. And thus a Jew who turns to Catholicism, in our view, is no longer a Jew. By his or her choice, that person has embarked on a spiritual journey that is no less valid to him, but that cannot be seen by us as a further or higher continuation on the same path. Edith Stein tells us that by becoming a Catholic she felt truly Jewish for the first time in her life, but to her Jewish family it appeared that she had left the fold.

The irony does not end there. Even if she felt closer to her Jewish heritage, she was made to feel an outsider by her fellow Jews. She was also a target of the racial anti-Semitism of the Hitler regime. By its laws she was subject to the restrictions against Jews, whether they were Jews by accident of birth or by acknowledged allegiance. By the accident of Jewish ancestry, a person was subject to persecution and execution, regardless of whether he or she personally embraced the Jewish faith. Edith shared the fate of her Jewish “brothers and sisters,” both literally and figuratively, in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. In death she was united with them, even though in life she had embarked on a different road.

We are poignantly aware of these contradictions, and they have contributed to the difficulties that arose out of the designation of Edith Stein as a Christian martyr. In correspondence with Victor Donovan, C.P., a long-time friend devoted to achieving greater closeness between Catholics and Jews, I stated: “In my family the truth jumps out at me dramatically, because Edith was not the only one of her family who was murdered in the Holocaust. With her was her sister Rosa (like Edith a convert to Catholicism, like her, arrested in the Carmelite Monastery of Echt, Holland, deported and killed in Auschwitz on the same day as her sister, but rarely mentioned by the church) and besides these two, her brother Paul and his wife, her sister Frieda, and her niece Eva were likewise slaughtered.”

Edith did not choose martyrdom. It was thrust upon her as it was thrust upon millions of Jews by the simple accident of their having been born Jewish.

The Jewish and the Christian view of martyrdom differ sharply. “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life… loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days” (Deut. 30:19-20). And again: “You shall… keep my statutes and my ordinances, by doing which a man shall live” (Lev. 18:5).

In the words of Rabbi Daniel Landes, “After 2,000 years of Jewish suffering, martyrdom barely has a place in Jewish liturgy and is not extolled as an ideal.”

In the Christian view, martyrdom has a different role. Each view is valid for its believer, but by claiming that they are identical, we force one into the Procrustean bed of the other, into a bed it does not fit or can only be accommodated with great pain, twisting and distortion.

Understanding can never be achieved by glossing over or by one side trying to convince the other that it alone is in possession of the truth. Too much pain and suffering have occurred over the centuries because people have followed the motto: Und willst Du nicht mein Bruder sein, So schlag ich Dir den Schädel ein. (“If you refuse to be my brother, I smash your brains in.”)

How much better to listen to our brother’s cry, to strive for the empathy that my aunt wrote about in her doctoral dissertation, to search for ways to help each other, to see the common humanity and grant the others the right to follow the path of their choice by which they reach our common goals.

Some time ago we commemorated the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, Nov. 9-10 1938. It was the opening of the violent phase of the Holocaust, the pogrom in which synagogues were destroyed and people were arrested and shipped to concentration camps by the thousands. We commemorate, we mourn, but we must stand together and vow to be more sensitive in the future to the cry of human beings, to refuse to join the howling mob, to heal and rescue rather than cast stones and firebrands, and to fight injustice wherever we may find it. That is a goal worth fighting for; that is a purpose to which we can all dedicate ourselves, regardless of race, color or religion.

So far, the church has not found any bona fide miracles attributable to Edith Stein. But if I may paraphrase Father Donovan, if the memory of Edith Stein can inspire us to such courage and such resolve, that may perhaps be miracle enough.