Religion: Saintly Passions

Jews protest a beatification

  • Share
  • Read Later

The Gestapo came for Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross at the Carmelite convent in Echt, the Netherlands, on Aug. 2, 1942. She and her older sister Rosa, who was living at the convent, were given five minutes to pack. Within a week the two women were at the gates of the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. They died in the gas chamber on Aug. 9. In words that today ring with heroism, Sister Teresa told Rosa in Echt, "Come. We are going for our people." In those words rest the very paradox of Sister Teresa: Were her people Jews or Catholics? The Carmelite nun, 50 when she died, was born Edith Stein, a Jew, and converted to Roman Catholicism when she was 30.

This week Pope John Paul II will beatify Sister Teresa at a Cologne stadium during the Pontiff's five-day visit to West Germany. In the ceremony -- the final step before Teresa is declared a saint of the Roman Catholic Church -- the Pope will be further drawing his church into a dispute that seems to be aggravating Rome's history of strained relations with Jews. John Paul will be stepping directly into the controversy on his West German visit, during which he will also beatify Rupert Mayer, a German Jesuit priest who opposed the Nazis and died in 1945.

"Why attention for a Jew who left the faith to join the Catholic Church?" asks Marcel Poorthuis, a spokesman for the Dutch Catholic Council for Israel, of the Stein beatification. "A lack of sensitivity," declares Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. Asks James Raphael Baaden, an American Jew who lives in London and is writing a book about Edith Stein: How can she be beatified as a Christian martyr if she died as a Jew?

The figure at the center of this debate was born into a Jewish family in Breslau, m,hGermany, in 1891. She studied philosophy at universities in Breslau and Gottingen. In 1922, after reading a biography of the 16th century mystic St. Teresa of Avila, Stein was baptized a Catholic. For eight years she taught at a convent school at Speyer, where she was known as an ascetic who rose early, wore patched linen clothes and knelt through three Masses a day. In 1934, after the Nazis banned Jews from academic posts, Edith Stein entered the Carmelite convent in Cologne. By 1938, with the Jewish pogroms in full sway, the order sent her to Echt.

In Rome's view, Sister Teresa offered herself as a martyr following the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940. But it is known she had tried to transfer to a Swiss convent. After her arrest she asked the convent to send her two suitcases of clothes; that indicated ignorance of her fate, according to Sister Marie Louise, a former prioress at Echt. Agrees Pinchas Lapide, a Frankfurt Jewish scholar: "Her death was totally involuntary." Although "in her own mind Edith Stein most probably died for her faith," says Renee Grignon, an official of the French Jewish-Christian Friendship Association, "in reality, she died because of her origins." She acknowledged her Jewishness when she wrote after Hitler's pogroms began, "This is the realization of the curse that my people have brought on themselves."

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2