Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a Carmelite nun, was born Edith Stein in 1891in Poland and was killed in Auschwitz on August 9, 1942. Edith and her sister Rosa, along with other Jews who had become Catholics, were arrested by the Nazis occupying the Netherlands in retaliation for the denunciation by the Dutch bishops of Nazi anti-Semitism.
There has often been criticism of the silence of the Church with regard to the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Before he became Pope Pius XII, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli had been the papal nuncio to Germany during the 1930’s and negotiated a treaty, or concordat, between the Vatican and Nazi Germany. Gerard Noel has published a new book, Pius XII: The Hound of Hitler, which focuses on the crushing conflict the Pope experienced within himself and the deep personal toll it took on him.
Pius XII’s fears for the Church were only increased by the Nazi extermination of Jewish converts to Catholicism in the Netherlands. A broader analysis of the Pope’s situation makes it seem almost impossible. Events were beyond the ability of any one person to change or control. Mary Doria Russell, in A Thread of Grace, portrays the complexity of the Italian resistance to the Holocaust. The sheer caprice of war annihilates and spares individuals and communities at random. Most Italian Jews were saved by their neighbors and complete strangers. Unfortunately, this was not the pattern in the rest of Europe.
St. Edith Stein could not justify the horrendous evil that was to be visited on her people in any theological sense but that of the cross. In her final few days at Auschwitz, Edith and her sister Rosa made an indelible impression on some of the children. As the survivors tell it, many mothers were so traumatized that they collapsed emotionally. Edith and Rosa comforted and held the children and did what they could to meet their needs. Edith Stein’s contribution to the philosophy of experience was the notion that our identity is created not through an Ego that apprehends others. Rather, the Ego arises out of our identification with the needs, desires, and feelings of others. We come to be, as self-conscious beings, through compassion.
In her final days, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross showed that her philosophy of compassion was not just an intellectual construct but the framework of her life and legacy to us.Read More