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Edith Stein’s Legacy – A Reflection

In 1942, Edith Stein was murdered as a Jew. In 1998, she was canonized as a Christian martyr. The irony is complex and her beatification in 1987 and recent canonization have been fraught with controversy [see LILITH, Winter 1991]. Stein’s family members are still bitter over what they view as her abandonment of her people, culminating in 1933, when she entered the Cologne Carmel. They are not assuaged by her statement to her sister—also a convert—when they were arrested, “Come, Rosa, we are going for our people.”

Some of her family members are also concerned with the Church’s motives in canonizing her: Is it a move to bridge the gap between Catholics and Jews? Or is it, as the more cynical claim, an attempt by the Church to paper over its guilt for remaining largely silent in the face of Nazis atrocities?

The questions of who owns Stein’s memory and how it should be “used” by history are explored in a volume of speeches, letters and reflections by Christians and Jews, including some who knew Stein, Never Forget: Christian and Jewish Perspectives on Edith Stein (Institute for Carmelite Studies), edited by Waltraud Herbstrith. To Jews, she was no longer a Jew; to the Catholics in this book, she was a “Catholic Jew,” a fulfilled “Jewish Christian,” “a great daughter of Israel,” and a “daughter of the Church.” To most of the book’s Catholic authors, she suffered as Jesus suffered, “in co-redemption,” offering “her life for those condemned to death.” To Jews, such explanations are alien, even condescending. Yet we cannot discount the wise words of Jan H. Nota, who saw the beatification of Stein as a stimulus to Jewish-Catholic dialogue, beginning with the Church’s admission that Stein and all the Jews were not only the victims of the Nazis, but also of Christians who feared “for their own lives while their Jewish brothers were murdered next door.”

Still, the question persists: Was Stein a martyr? Christian martyrdom involves the conscious choice to die for a cause. How, then, can a Jewish victim of the Holocaust be a Christian martyr? The Jews were not given a choice. They were not asked to renounce their faith in order to live; they even lacked the power of self-definition. They were Jewish by Nazi dictum.

Stein herself knew this. For about nine years she tried to convince the Church to intervene for the Jews. In 1933 she made a plea to the pope to publicly denounce Nazi policy against the Jews. Later she asked him to assist her own escape to a Swiss convent. Her efforts failed. She was murdered along with six million other Jews because she was Jewish in the eyes of the Germans.

Edith Stein was neither a Jewish martyr nor a traditional Catholic one. She did not, like Christian martyrs, go to the gas chambers in defense of her faith. Nor can she be counted among those who in Jewish martyrology died for Kiddush HaShem, sanctifying God’s name, because she had already renounced her Judaism. Vulnerable as a Jew, conspicuous as a convert to Catholicism, her legacy to Catholics and Jews lies in her enduring truth as one more victim of Nazism and the silence of the nations during the Holocaust. Contention over her status as a martyr avoids the more essential issue of the Church’s response to the Holocaust.