On the 14th of May in 1940, following a massive invasion four days earlier by the German High Command, Holland was forced to surrender, along with Luxembourg and Belgium, each fated to spend the next five years in a state of brutal subjugation under the heel of the Third Reich. Wholesale deportations soon began, especially of Jews, who were routinely rounded up and sent to Concentration Camps where most of them perished in gas ovens. By the summer of 1942, the bishops of Holland were ready to mobilize. They issued a sweeping public condemnation of racial barbarity that so infuriated the Nazis that they ordered the arrest and deportation of all Catholics of Jewish descent, including a Carmelite nun by the name of Edith Stein and her sister Rosa, both of whom would die at Auschwitz on the 9th of August.
She had long foretold her end, however, writing her Superior three years before for permission to become a Victim Soul in order to help atone for the sins of the world. “Dear Mother,” she began,
I beg your Reverence’s permission to offer myself to the Heart of Jesus as a sacrificial expiation for the sake of true peace…I know that I am nothing, but Jesus wills it, and he will call many more to the same sacrifice in these days.
It was on the feast of Passion Sunday that she made her appeal. She was not refused. Indeed, Edith Stein was not the sort of person to stumble blindly into events that she would later live to regret. She chose with unblinkered eyes the path that would lead inexorably to a martyrdom she had long desired. Beginning with the name she had chosen on entering religious life, Sister Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, which means Blessed of the Cross, she sensed early on the mystical resonance it carried, deriving from a Jewishness she had no wish to renounce. “One thing I should tell you,” she explained to her Superior,
When I entered, I had already chosen the religious name I wanted, and I received it exactly as I had asked for it. ‘By the Cross’ I saw as referring to the fate of the people of God, which even then was beginning to reveal itself. As I understood it, anyone who recognized that this was the Cross of Christ had a responsibility to bear it in the name of all. I know a little more than I did then what it means to be betrothed to the Lord in the sign of the Cross. But it’s something that cannot ever be understood.
At the time of her arrest, she was, owing to a masterstroke of irony, struggling to finish what would be her greatest theological work, a lengthy study of the Science of the Cross, which she would not survive to complete—at least not in the form of a book. Instead, she completed it in her life, in the contours of her own body. “Right from the beginning,” she had confided to her Prioress, “I’ve been convinced that it is only by feeling the weight of the Cross that one ever gains a scientia crucis. That is why I have said with all my heart: Ave crux, spes unica!” Hail to the Cross, our only hope!
Less than a half-century later, having in the meantime conformed herself to its actual cruciform shape, Pope St. John Paul II would raise her to the altar, announcing her beatification before thousands on the 1st of May, 1987, at a Mass in Cologne, Germany. “We bow today with the entire Church,” he told the assembled crowd, “before this great woman…this great daughter of Israel, who found the fulfillment of her faith and her vocation for the people of God in Christ the Savior.”
The Pope called her, “a gift, an invocation and a promise for our time,” emphasizing repeatedly the profound vision she had of her own Jewish destiny as something inescapably wedded to Christ, a mystery enfolded within the outstretched arms of Jesus as He hung upon the Cross. She was convinced, in other words, that the fate of her people, its four-thousand-year history steeped in living covenant with God, had come to define her own fate as well. Having shared in the strict traditions of the life of Judaism as a child, she could not dissociate herself in any way as an adult from the frightful circumstances that had come to define their predicament. Wherever the swastika appeared in the streets of Holland, so too would the Cross of Christ loom before her eyes. And when at last they came for both her and her sister, who had likewise been marked for deportation and death, she simply said: “Come, we will go for our people.”
In one of her last letters, composed in the long shadow cast by the Cross, she expresses with complete confidence the certainty that God will soon be coming for her, eager to gather her up to become that pure oblation she had always longed to be. “I always have to think of Queen Esther who was taken away from her people for the express purpose of standing before the king for her people. I am the very poor, weak and small Esther, but the King who selected me is infinitely great and merciful.” And He had, of course, long before chosen this weak vessel to stand in the breach for God’s people, a people He would never forsake.
At the Mass of her Beatification, a passage from the epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians was read that reminds us of the life and death of every martyr, a word which means one who gives witness, as did Edith Stein. “May I never boast,” St. Paul had declared, “of anything but the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Through it, the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14). Paul’s text could scarcely be more applicable to Edith Stein, whose entire life was consecrated to the pursuit of truth, destined to see it all come to the most sublime completion—a most blest consummation, really—in the same Cross to which, like the Apostle Paul before her, she too found herself conformed with and in and for the world.
Blessed be Edith Stein, blessed be her Cross, our only hope.
[Image: Edith Stein’s “passport” photo taken in the doorway of the Cologne Carmel (Wikimedia Commons).]