The Canonization of Edith Stein: An Unnecessary Problem

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Abraham H. Foxman
National Director
Anti-Defamation League
& Rabbi Leon Klenicki
Director of Interfaith Affairs
Anti-Defamation League

October 1998

On August 9, 1942, a transport from Holland pulled into the Auschwitz concentration camp. There were 559 people in the transport. Among them were two sisters, Edith and Rosa Stein. The SS doctor selected those fit for work (about 200 people) and sent the rest to the gas chambers, including Edith and Rosa. That was the fate of Edith Stein, a brilliant philosopher, born in Germany, a refugee in Holland, and a convert from Judaism to Catholicism.

Edith Stein was known in philosophical circles all over Germany. She wrote extensively and was well known for her work in contemporary philosophy. In the 1920's, she applied to teach at several universities but was denied a teaching job not only because she was a woman, "but because she was Jewish." She came from a Jewish home that she described in her book Life in a Jewish Family: 1891-1916, where she points out that her mother celebrated the Shabbat and Jewish festivals though the family in general didn't have a religious commitment. She was deeply influenced by Spanish mysticism, especially the thought of St. Theresa, a Spanish mystic whose family was partially Jewish. On January 1, 1922, she was baptized and later on, to the dismay of her mother, became a Carmelite nun, under the name of Sister Theresa Benedicta of the Cross. Unable to remain in Germany after 1935 because of Nazi persecution, she left for the Carmelite convent in Holland. She remained there until the invasion of the Nazis and was on her way to Switzerland with her sister when she was caught and sent to Auschwitz. Her sister didn't become a nun, though she converted and shared her sister's stay in the monastery.

In 1986, Edith Stein was beatified by Pope John Paul II, and on October 11, 1998, she will be canonized as a martyr-saint. Her canonization has created a storm of controversy in the Jewish community, affecting the Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

Paying homage to Christian suffering would be understandable if it were not at the expense of the reality that the Holocaust was essentially a program for the extermination of the Jewish people.

The canonization of a saint is an event that belongs to the Catholic Church and the Catholic people. Jews can be spectators of this important religious event, but at times it is necessary to explain the meaning of this canonization for the Jewish people. This is the case regarding Edith Stein. Paying homage to Christian suffering would be understandable if it were not at the expense of the reality that the Holocaust was essentially a program for the extermination of the Jewish people. Unfortunately, in a series of steps in recent years, certain Church figures have acted in ways to appropriate the symbols of Jewish suffering to minimize the significance of Catholic anti-Semitism and, by focusing on its own victimization, to deflect examination of the Church’s roll in creating an environment that made possible the Holocaust.

It started with the setting up of a Carmelite monastery in Auschwitz in the 1980’s, devoted to prayer for all the dead, including Jewish people. The monastery was placed in a building that stored the Zyklon gas during the Second World War. The presence of the nuns was a way of conveying the idea that Auschwitz was a place of true Christian martyrdom. While there is no doubt that many Christians died in Auschwitz, especially Polish priests, nevertheless the main industry of that concentration camp was the extermination of the Jewish people. The monastery diminished this reality.

The second stage of Christianizing the Holocaust could be seen in the canonization of Maximilian Kolbe. Kolbe was a priest who gave his place for a prisoner in Auschwitz in order to save the prisoner’s life. He was condemned to death and recognized as a saint and a martyr by Pope John Paul II. Here too, however, there is a lessening of the understanding of what the Holocaust was about for Jews. Even in the hell of Auschwitz, Kolbe had choices as a Christian which Jews never had. The Holocaust for Jews was about the absence of choice. Moreover, Kolbe, who suffered the horror of Auschwitz, was the general editor of an important Catholic publishing company in Poland before the Nazis and Communists invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. It published the most anti-Semitic magazine in the country, though there is no evidence of Kolbe writing any article in that magazine. However, he was the general editor under whose jurisdiction the magazine was published. By honoring someone who’s connected, even indirectly, to the anti-Semitism which led to the Holocaust, and which helped create an atmosphere of apathy which discouraged many from saving Jews, is again to diminish Jewish sensitivities surrounding this great horror.

For us, the sanctification of Edith Stein on October 11 is another step in the process of Christianization of the Holocaust, demonstrating that Auschwitz, the very symbol of Jewish martyrdom, was not essentially a Jewish event, the expression of total pagan anti-Semitism nurtured by two thousand years of Christian teaching of contempt, but to be remembered as a place of Christians suffering.

...her death relates to the Jewish focus of the Holocaust. ...Edith Stein becomes a Jewish text for a Christian pretext, an excuse whereby the Church can claim the same victimization which it’s own anti-Jewish practices foisted on innocent Jewish lives.

We as Jews feel that we have lost Edith Stein twice. The first time was at her conversion to Catholicism. The second time is with her canonization, by which some groups appropriate her as a Christian martyr even though her death relates to the Jewish focus of the Holocaust. Seen in this manner, Edith Stein becomes a Jewish text for a Christian pretext, an excuse whereby the Church can claim the same victimization which it’s own anti-Jewish practices foisted on innocent Jewish lives. Why Edith Stein and not Franz Jägerstätter, a humble Austrian Catholic beheaded by the Nazis in 1943 for his refusal to fight in Hitler's armies' Why not a Catholic Polish peasant who hid Jews or a maid who took in a Jewish child as her own?

There have been suggestions in recent articles that the canonization of Edith Stein will foster a new level of interfaith dialogue. Unfortunately, this is pure fantasy. Edith Stein wrote a whole book on her Jewish family, but nothing, to our knowledge, about Christian-Jewish dialogue.

The truth is, from a Jewish perspective, the canonization of Edith Stein is the wrong issue at the wrong time. Despite the tremendous gains in Catholic-Jewish relations over the years, spurred on by Pope John Paul II, there are serious issues related to the Holocaust which require attention, which should be the real focus of the Church. Most notable is the need for the Vatican to open its archives so that a true and fair assessment of the Church’s role during that tragic period can be made. This opening of documents, which countries throughout Europe are going through, is essential in order to address so many of the matters left unanswered in the Vatican document on the Holocaust and in the minds of survivors and others throughout the world.

It is time to move forward. Christianizing the Holocaust takes us backward. The canonization of Edith Stein is, as the late Harry James Cargas pointed out, an unnecessary problem.

Abraham H. Foxman is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor. As a child in Nazi-occupied Lithuania, Mr. Foxman was saved by his Polish-Catholic nanny who had him baptized in a Vilna church.

Rabbi Leon Klenicki is Director of Interfaith Affairs and has been engaged in Catholic-Jewish dialogue for 25 years. Rabbi Klenicki works with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and is co-liaison to the Vatican.

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