Sophie de Villeneuve: How did Edith Stein arrive at Auschwitz? Did she voluntarily take a path of martyrdom?
Sophie Binggeli: When John Paul II beatified her in Cologne in 1987, we wondered if he would beatify her as a virgin or as a martyr. He did it as a martyr. Edith Stein was born into a Jewish family in 1891, and in 1942, the year of the Final Solution, she died a victim of Nazi madness in Auschwitz. A philosopher, she entered the Catholic Church in 1922. She waited until 1933 to enter Carmel, at a time when she no longer had a place in Nazi Germany. She would have liked to enter it earlier, but her spiritual director had advised her to stay in the world.
In 1933, Hitler came to power, and anti-Jewish laws prohibited Jews from many public and other activities. She knows that she will no longer be able to teach. She then joined Carmel, first in Cologne, from 1933 to 1938. In 1938, Nazi hatred of Jews exploded during the terrible Kristallnacht. On December 31, 1938, she crossed the border to join the Carmel of Echt, in Holland.
Holland will show some resistance to Nazism. At the beginning of 1942, the Catholic Church and the Dutch Protestant Churches learn that the final solution has been decided, and that mass deportations have begun towards the East. Together they protest. The Nazis promise not to deport Christians of Jewish origin if the churches agree not to publish their statement. The Protestants give up, but they organize a vast network of prayer against the deportations. On the Catholic side, the priests read from the pulpit, on July 26, 1942, the pastoral letter of their bishops against the Jewish deportations. A week later, Edith Stein and her sister Rosa, who lived with her in the Carmel of Echt, as well as all Dutch Catholics of Jewish origin, were arrested and deported.
She had chosen Thérèse Bénédicte de la Croix as her religious name. Was it prescient?
SB: Yes and no. When she was arrested, she had just received news from Switzerland: the Carmel of Pâquier agreed to welcome her and a religious community near Friborg would do the same for her sister Rosa. Unfortunately, the Swiss authorities initially refused the immigration request. It is only in September that the authorization to immigrate will come. Edith Stein, at the time of these steps, recognizes that it was difficult for her to change community a third time. Deep down she preferred to stay united with what was happening to her people, the Jewish people. As a daughter of Israel, it was essential for her that Christ, Mary and the first apostles were Jewish. As a daughter of Israel, she links the mystery of the Cross on Good Friday to the great Jewish feast of Yom Kippur. As a daughter of the Church, she knows that she is associated with the work of redemption that Christ accomplishes and she offers herself.
Can we compare this offering to that of the monks who remained in Algeria like the monks of Tibhirine?
SB: Martyrdom does not consist in going before persecution, it is not heroism. These are the events that join the martyrs and in which they can read the will of God. When Christ is condemned by the Sanhedrin and by the Jewish high priests, then by Pilate, he will say: “I lay down my life”. Edith Stein is a victim of Nazi hatred against Jews. She did everything to escape this persecution. And at the same time, through her Carmelite consecration, she offers herself to God. For her, the meaning of history is not in the hands of men but in the hands of God.
Did she know what awaited her, what would be the outcome of these deportations?
SB: I don’t think so. She could not imagine the planned extermination by the Nazis. Coming from Germany and having fled it, she knows how dangerous the Nazi regime and ideology are. She lived Kristallnacht in Cologne, she went through the Westerbork camp… But the final destination of the transfer to the East was unknown to her.
Do you think she met Etty Hillesum at Wersterbork?
SB: Yes, in the Westerbork Letters, Etty Hillesum talks about all the Catholics and Christians who passed through this camp.