Saint Edith Stein
As a brilliantly profound German philosopher, as an expert on St. John of the Cross and his theology of suffering, as a Carmelite nun and as a victim of Auschwitz, Edith Stein was in a unique position to understand the meaning of the Holocaust. More importantly, the illumination of our intellects to understand God’s ways comes from the light of the Holy Spirit, which becomes more available as personal sanctity and prayer increase. Edith Stein stood out as unique in both her sanctity and her recollection in prayer, even as a Carmelite nun, and even (and especially) as a prisoner en route to certain death at Auschwitz.43
From the beginning of the Nazi takeover of Germany in 1933, she saw what was happening to the Jews in the light of the Cross. During a holy hour at the Carmelite convent in Cologne, she had the following illumination:
I spoke with the Savior to tell him that I realized it was his Cross that was now being laid upon the Jewish people, that the few who understood this had the responsibility of carrying it in the name of all, and that I myself was willing to do this, if he would only show me how. I left the service with the inner conviction that I had been heard, but uncertain as ever as to what “carrying the Cross” would mean for me.
She also saw a special relationship between what was happening to the Jewish people and their rejection ofJesus. On the day that she found out about the synagogue burnings she made the following comment (later printed in the monthly of the Benedictine abbey in Beuron, where Abbot Walzer was her spiritual director):
This is the shadow of the cross that falls upon my people! Oh, if they would only realize! That is the fulfillment of the curse which my people have called down upon themselves!
Beyond the meaning that the Holocaust had for all Jews, she saw a special role for herself. By being both Jewish and Catholic, she identified fully both with the Jews by blood and with the Church by faith and thus was able in a unique way to bring the suffering of the Jews to the Cross of Christ. She felt it was particularly important for the few victims of the sacrifice who were aware of its meaning to carry this awareness for all:
I understood the Cross as the destiny of God’s people, which was beginning to be apparent at the time (iv). I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on everybody’s behalf.... Beneath the Cross I understood the destiny of God’s people.°
In this role she compared herself to Queen Esther, who also offered her life before the king to save her (the Jewish) people:
I firmly believe that the Lord has accepted my life as an offering for all. It’s important for me to keep Queen Esther in mind and remember how she was separated from her people just so that she could intercede for them before the king. I myself certainly am a poor and insignificant little Esther, but I take comfort from the fact that the King who has chosen me is infinitely kind and merciful.
Out of this awareness she made an offering of herself to God in her final testament, written in 1939:
I joyfully accept in advance the death God has appointed for me, in perfect subrmssion to his most holy will. May the Lord accept my life and death for the honor and glory of his name, for the needs of his holy Church—especially for the preservation, sanctification, and final perfecting of our holy Order, and in particular for the Carmels of Cologne and Echt—for the Jewish people, that the Lord may be received by his own and his Kingdom come in glory, for the deliverance of Germany and peace throughout the world, and finally, for all my relatives living and dead and all whom God has given me; may none of them be lost.
This final testament was echoed in her last words, said to her sister Rosa as they were led from their convent by the SS guards to be taken to Auschwitz, “Come, let us go for our people”.
Her intention, that “the Lord may be received by his own”, was repeated by Pope John Paul II during his canonization Mass for the new saint:
God of our fathers, you led the holy Martyr Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein, to a knowledge of your crucified Son and called her to follow his example in death. By her prayers, bring all to recognize their Savior in the Crucified Christ and through him, to arrive at the vision of your glory.’
Edith Stein’s understanding of her own fate, as well as of the Holocaust, was based on her knowledge of The Science of the Cross (the title of her last book, written immediately prior to her arrest and deportation to Auschwitz). When she was seeking to enter the Carmelite Convent in Cologne she told the prioress that one of her reasons was “[human activities cannot help us, but only the suffering of Christ. It is my desire to share in Many of her writings reflect on the redemptive value of suffering, of the Cross:
By assuming human nature, Christ became capable of suffering and dying. His divine nature, which He has had from eternity, gave infinite value and a redeeming power to His suffering and death. Christ’s suffering and death continues in His mystical Body and in each one of His members. Everyone has to suffer and die. And if he is a living member of the Body of Christ, then his death and suffering acquires redemptive power through the divine nature of the Head. In the light of the mystery of redemption, [this] is the ultimate raison d’etre ("reason for being"). Those who are joined to Christ, therefore, will unflinchingly persevere even in the dark night of subjectively feeling remote from and abandoned by God. ... The way of the Son of God is to get to the resurrection through suffering and the cross. Getting to resurrection glory with the Son of Man, through suffering and death, is also the way for each one of us and for all mankind.
She wrote to a fellow Carmelite:
One can only gain a scientia crucis (knowledge of the cross) if one has thoroughly experienced the cross. I have been convinced of this from the first moment onwards and have said with all my heart: ‘Aye, Crux, Spes Unica’ (‘Hail, Cross, our only hope’).
To fully elaborate the meaning that St. Edith Stein saw in the Holocaust would require sharing in the depth of her understanding, which is impossible. However, it is clear that she saw in it an aspect of expiatory suffering, expiating for the Jews’ rejection of Christ. She saw in it a redemptive value for the redemption of the whole world. She saw a specific link between her sacrifice and the special grace needed to bring about the conversion of the Jews. In that light, it may not be irrelevant that she perished with a train transport composed entirely ofbaptizedJews.
All of these aspects are very consonant with the idea that the Holocaust is related to the Second Coming—to the return of Christ in glory. Grace is always “purchased” by suffering. Suffering and sacrifice is the coin that we here on earth have to offer up to God and receive grace in return. The greatest grace possible is the grace of Redemption, of salvation.