Friday, July 07, 2006

For our people (Edith Stein)

Edith Stein, a convert to Catholicism from Judaism, entered the Carmelite order of nuns. There, she took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She spent her life as a young person as a Gnostic, a woman seeking for truth. The truth she found in the Catholic Church, and she entered contemplative life in order to live the truth more fully. Cloistered in the convent, she worked on intellectual matters which concerned her spiritual formation.
The Nazis started persecuting the Catholic Church in the 1930’s. It was also the time in which the Communists in Spain killed priests and nuns, some of them from the Carmelite order. Sr. Teresa saw this as a salutary warning for the sisters in Germany of what might happen to them.
On Election Day, all the nuns were forced to vote in the convent, with the exception of Sr. Teresa, because of her Jewish background. Sr. Teresa was convinced that “the shadow of the Cross which is falling on” her people intensifies. She trusts “in the Lord's having accepted my life for all of them. I keep having to think of Queen Esther who was taken from her people precisely that she might represent them before the king. I am a very poor and powerless Esther, but the King who chose me is infinitely great and merciful.”
Out of fear for her other sisters in Cologne, Sr. Teresa transferred to a Carmelite convent in Holland, together with her sister Rosa, who was also a convert to Catholicism and lived in the convent with the sisters. There, she wrote to her prioress that she is offering herself “as a sacrifice of propitiation for true peace, that the dominion of the Antichrist may collapse, if possible, without a new world war. It is the twelfth hour. I know that I am a nothing, but Jesus desires it, and surely he will call many others to do likewise in these days.”
She expands on her willingness to offer herself to God, “Even now I joyfully accept the death which God has destined for me, in total submission to His most holy will. I beg the Lord to accept my life and my death for His honor and glorification, for all desires of the most holy hearts of Jesus and Mary and the Holy Church, and especially for the preservation, sanctification and perfection of our Holy Order, particularly the Carmel in Cologne and in Echt, for the atonement of the unbelief of the Jewish people and for this: that the Lord may be accepted by His own people and that His Kingdom may come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and for world peace, and finally for my relatives both living and dead, and all those whom God has given me: that none of them may perish.”
To a former colleague dying of cancer she writes, “I believe that such suffering, when it is accepted with a willing heart and carried to the end, is reckoned before God as a true martyrdom.”
When the Nazis invaded Holland, the Bishop advised Sr. Teresa and her sister to leave, but they preferred to stay, because the Nazis might attack the convent as a reprisal. On the first Monday of October 1941, Benedicta and Rosa report to the Police Commissioner in Maastricht to register as "non-Aryan" aliens. A few days later she writes, “A scientia crucis [knowledge of the Cross] can be gained only when one comes to feel the Cross radically. I have been convinced of that from the first moment and have said, from my heart, ‘Hail, Holy Cross our only hope!’”
A strong denunciation of the Nazi deportations of Jews is ordered to be read in all Catholic churches by Dutch bishops. A postwar report on this action explained that the Nazis had told Christian churches that baptized Jews would be exempted from deportation if the churches refrained “from further action on behalf of the rest of the Jews.” Top Nazi occupation officers meet in The Hague. The record of their meeting contains this paragraph, “Since the Catholic bishops have interfered in something that does not concern them, and deportation of all Catholic Jews will be speeded up and completed within the coming week. No appeals for clemency shall be considered.”
During the evening of August 2 1942, Gestapo agents enter the Carmel and demand that Edith and Rosa Stein leave with them in five minutes. The Mother Prioress' protestations and pleas have no effect. In haste and near-panic, the two women pack small bags, bid tearful farewells, and leave. Edith momentarily kneels before the Tabernacle, asks all for prayers and Mother Prioress for her blessing. She takes Rosa's hand as they move into the street and says, "Come, Rosa, we're going for our people." Edith and Rosa, along with several hundred other baptized Jews, are taken to assembly stations and then moved to the main transit-point in the North at Westerbork. During the following days. Sister Teresa is able to scratch off three notes which are smuggled out of the Westerbork camp. She said that everything possible is being done to set them free or avoid their deportation. Those who were to be deported seek consolation from the nuns imprisoned with them.
On August 6, they were loaded on trains to be sent to Auschwitz. Eyewitness reports describe Benedicta as calm and kind up to the time she and Rosa are sealed in a freight car headed East. The train passed through many cities Edith Stein knew very well, including the city of her very happy childhood, Breslau, on its way to Auschwitz. On August 9, 1942, she was killed in the gas chamber in Auschwitz together with other converts. After the deportation of the two sisters by the SS, a holy picture was found in their room with an inscription on the back by Rosa, offering her life for the conversion of the Jews.
Here is how Sr. Teresa spent her last days. Her former companion wrote of Sister Teresa in the concentration camp, “In the midst of cries of desperation, she moved among the women, offering comfort, help and peace, like an angel. Many mothers, almost insane, staring into space during the whole day, oblivious of their children, were overcome by despair. Sister Teresa took care of the little ones, washed them, combed their hair, fed them and nursed them. During the entire time she spent in the camp, she continued her work of charity, which filled everybody with admiration.”


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