Saints and Nazi Skeletons

By Michael, Eleanor | History Today, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Saints and Nazi Skeletons


Michael, Eleanor, History Today


Blessed Edith Stein -- a Jewish-born Carmelite nun murdered in Auschwitz in August 1942 -- is to be canonised by Pope John Paul II on October 11th. Though she is undoubtedly a true martyr, she may have been sent unnecessarily to her fate by a Benedictine priest known to have been working with the Nazis.

As the millennium approaches, the Catholic Church is striving to close the books on the nagging issue of its treatment and relationship with the Jews. The moral aftermath of the Second World War still haunts the civilised world, and hardly a day goes by when no new revelations of omission and commission come to light.

While Pope John Paul II has done more for Christian-Jewish relations than any other pope, his decision to canonise the Jewish-born German philosopher Edith Stein, only eleven years after the controversies that surrounded her beatification, is bound to reopen old wounds.

During the beatification ceremony in Cologne in May 1987, the Pontiff called Stein `the Martyr Saint of Auschwitz.' While acknowledging the Jewish roots of `the daughter of Israel' and asserting that her baptism `was by no means a break with her Jewish heritage', the Pope's comments spawned a heated debate within the Jewish community: Stein was murdered because she was born as a Jew, and not because she was Catholic. Some felt that the Church's decision to beatify her was designed to obscure its controversial policy of silence and the relationship between Pope Pius XII and Hitler.

Edith Stein was born in Breslau, Germany (today Wroclaw, Poland) on October 12th, 1891. Her father died when she was two, leaving her mother to run the family's lumber business. While her mother adhered to Jewish tradition, religion played no part in Edith's life, and the pretty young girl, an acculturated and assimilated proud German, declared herself an atheist at the age of fourteen. Upon completing the Gymnasium, she studied psychology in Breslau, before switching to philosophy and she became one of the few women, admitted into the inner circle of the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl in Goettingen.

Although she was both brilliant and sociable, Stein wrote extensively about the academic and emotional difficulties she encountered in Goettingen in her unfinished autobiography Life in a Jewish Family. `Little by little I worked myself into a state of veritable despair,' she wrote, `I was dedicated to my work, but I never gave up my dream of true love and a happy marriage.' But her romantic involvements were fraught with difficulties. Her fellow student Hans Lipps did not propose marriage as she had hoped, and her relationship with another young phenomenologist, Roman Ingarden, turned into a lifelong correspondence when he returned to Krakow at the onset of the First World War.

A true Prussian patriot, Edith volunteered as a First World War Red Cross nurse, whereas several of her fellow students and her mentor, Husserl's assistant Adolf Reinach, volunteered for combat. When Reinach, who had just converted along with his wife Anna, fell at the Eastern front, Dr Stein secured his old position as Husserl's assistant. But unlike Reinach who taught seminars, her duties were secretarial and the young woman became increasingly lonely and disillusioned. Germany's defeat and the death of her close friend left her shattered at the end of the war.

Edith wrote very little about her conversion. `It's my secret,' is the one sentence she has left. She recounted her visit to Reinach's widow Anna, whom she found unexpectedly serene and composed through her newfound faith in Christianity. Stein herself converted to Catholicism on January 1st, 1922.

Her spiritual counsellor, the archabbot of the Benedictine monastery in Beuron, with whom she developed a warm relationship, objected to her plan of immediate entry into a convent. …

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