There are probably millions of stories of personal heroism and courage during the time of the Nazi regime in Europe. We recently wrote of one heroic German Franciscan, Father Karl Goldmann, and his exploits as a German SS soldier. The heart-wrenching story of Edith Stein, now known as Saint Benedicta of the Cross, is another to come out of this horrific time of the twentieth century when Nazi Germany set all of Europe — and much of the rest of the globe — aflame with fear and hatred.
In 1939, Hitler spoke in a radio address of the need to exterminate Europe’s Jews on the grounds that they were Bolsheviks threatening to overthrow his Nationalist Socialist system. Two years later, he ordered the systematic murder of Jews in German-controlled lands, placing SS head Heinrich Himmler in charge of the plan. At first, the Nazis tried execution by firing squad of those who were rounded up. This proved too big a waste of bullets and diverted trained military from the war effort. Therefore, the decision was made to use poisonous gas because the execution of an estimated eleven million people would take a great deal of time and gassing would be a more efficient means of murdering large numbers. This method was nothing new to the Nazis — they had already used gas on the mentally handicapped, the seriously ill, and prisoners of war. As early as 1941, six hundred Russian prisoners of war and almost three hundred sick people were gassed using Cyclon B gas at the huge Auschwitz camp.
On January 3, 1942, Jewish emigration from Nazi held lands was forbidden, effectively trapping those Jews still remaining. Many anti-Jewish laws were enacted removing a large number of very highly educated people from important jobs such as teaching, the practice of law and medicine, store and business ownership. Confiscation of property was begun, leaving Jews with no way to make a living and no place to live. Quite a number had already fled the German homeland when the threats began. Many took refuge in the bordering Netherlands.
The Situation in the Netherlands
It had been estimated by those Nazis in charge of the “final solution” that the Netherlands was home to 160,800 Jews, about 1.6 percent of the Dutch population. After Hitler came to power, about 30,000 Jews fled Germany for the Netherlands. Although the Jewish population in the Netherlands was relatively small, it is a fact that a higher percentage of Jews perished from that country — seventy-five percent — than elsewhere in Europe.
On May 10, 1940, the German Army invaded the country, although the Netherlands had declared itself neutral. The Dutch Army capitulated just a few days later and the Nazi occupation began, with a civilian government (headed by German Nazis) under the thumb of the SS. A well-organized system of registration was established under the Jewish Council headed by well-respected Jewish businessmen. These people were duped by the Nazi occupiers into thinking that by registering all Jews living in the country they were helping them remain safe and were making it easier to relocate them and find employment elsewhere. In actuality, they were helping to make it easier to identify every single Dutch Jew and those who escaped Germany for the Netherlands to be easily located when it was time to round them up for deportation. During the 1967 trial of Wilhelm Harster, leader of the SS in the Netherlands, he readily admitted that the arrests of Jews were so complete “primarily because of the well-functioning registration process.”
Not only were all Jews and their locations registered by the Jewish Council, their family connections, personal effects, investments, properties and everything else they possessed were also included in their files. This was for the purpose of confiscation of anything of worth that they owned. The system was a model of efficiency.
Several groups were exempt from deportation. These included Jews married to non-Jews, workers in a war-related industry, and workers in the diamond trade. Those who would allow themselves to be sterilized were exempt as well. After 1942, every “mixed marriage” became punishable by death. It wasn’t compassion that led the Nazis to exempt those in a mixed marriage; they were making a conscious attempt not to stir up the Dutch population against the occupation.
“The Interdenominational Consultation”
In late 1940, the several Protestant denominations in the Netherlands consulted together to discuss issues relating to the Nazi occupation. One year later, the Roman Catholic Church joined this body which then became known as the Interdenominational Consultation. The purpose of this group was to guide their various congregations — about seven million baptized people — and warn them via the pulpit of the misleading Nazi propaganda. It was this group’s vocal denunciation of the deportation of Jewish Dutch citizens that occasioned the wrath of the governing Nazi elite and led to the deportation and murder of the Catholic Jews (Catholic by religion, Jewish by blood) of the Netherlands.
In early January of 1942, several members of this Consultation met with Nazi Government Commissioner Arthur Seyss-Inquart to discuss their views on the mistreatment of Dutch citizens. He brushed them off, justifying the Nazi measures. Seeing that they were getting nowhere by simply talking to the Nazi officials, the Consultation decided that a formal protest in writing should be drawn up with the intention of all clergy reading it to their congregations on Sunday, July 26, 1942. In addition, the text of a telegram sent to the Nazi officials was included in the body of the pastoral letter. Archbishop de Jong of Utrecht, the head of the Catholic bishops, was assured by Seyss-Inquart that the Catholic Jewish religious residing in Dutch convents and monasteries would be allowed to remain. Nevertheless, the Archbishop sent the letter to his fellow bishops, who, in turn, sent it out to all their parishes.
When word got out that the letter had been read in all the churches, effectively making every Christian in Holland a party to the protest, Seyss-Inquart was infuriated. He determined then and there that the Catholic Jews would pay the price for their bishops’ boldness. Harster, the SS officer, declared that the reason for the death of the Catholic Jews was “vengeance, retaliation for the position of the Catholic bishops.” In truth, the Nazis had never intended to exempt the Christian Jews from extermination. They stated that lie only to quell any unrest in the Christian population. Their intention all along had been to exterminate the Jewish population first, and then go after those who had converted to Christianity.
Arrests and Deportations
To give the reader a sense of the proportionality of Catholic Jews to those of other Christian denominations, we will simply state that at the time of the deportations in August of 1942 there were 722 Catholic Jews living in the Netherlands, more than half of whom were of Dutch nationality and the rest non-Dutch. About 1200 others belonged to various Protestant denominations. Of the above numbers of Catholic Jews, 113 perished immediately as a direct result of retaliation for the Bishops’ letter, most being professed religious — nuns, priests and brothers. The Nazi leadership in the Netherlands was determined to make an example of the Catholics; so their elimination took precedence over the other Christian Jews who were arrested.
So it was that on Sunday, August 2, 1942, exactly one week after the pastoral letter was read, the arrests of these religious began. The earliest occurred at the Trappists of Berkel-Enschot at 2:30 AM and the last around five in the evening at the Carmelite Convent of Echt, where Sister Benedicta of the Cross and her sister, Rosa, resided. Most were taken in early to mid-morning, some removed from their chapels during Holy Mass. They were from various religious orders and family backgrounds. All were highly educated — priests, librarians, teachers, nurses, even a medical doctor. Some were from Jewish families that had converted before the children were born; others, like the Stein sisters, converted on their own as adults. The German police attached to the SS ordered their superiors to supply them with clothing, blankets and food for their “journey.” Amazingly, they went willingly and courageously; all did not hesitate to inform their Bishops that they did not hold them responsible for their arrests. They were willing to give their lives for the sake of the Church and the conversion of the Jewish people.
Most of the prisoners were transported to a holding center in Amersfoort where hundreds of others were waiting to be released or “relocated.” Reams of forms had to be filled out stating everything from their family relations to their personal property, which, of course, the religious did not possess. The Nazis practiced cold and thorough efficiency from beginning to end.
At the holding center the religious formed a kind of unit among themselves. They engaged in prayer together and gave assistance to the terrified families, some of whom were too distressed to watch their own children. Sister Benedicta became their unannounced spiritual leader showing calm courage amid the trying circumstances. On Sunday, August 9, just two weeks after the reading of the letter and one week after their arrest, all 113 of the Jewish Catholic religious were singled out, placed in a transport truck, and taken immediately to Auschwitz where they were gassed together. Not one single document confirms their deaths.
Now we meet Edith Stein who in her early forties became Sister Benedicta of the Cross. Born in a large middle-class Jewish family, Edith was the last of eleven children and the apple of the family’s eye. The family practiced their faith devoutly. Edith, however, decided in her early teens that she was an atheist. A brilliant young lady, Edith became one of the first women to be admitted to university studies in Germany. She became a pupil of Edmund Husserl at Gottengen because she was drawn to his new philosophical method, that of phenomenology. It was through this teacher that her hard atheism began to crumble and she became attracted to Catholicism. She rose rapidly in academia all the while becoming more drawn to the Faith. In 1921, while vacationing with some friends, she picked up a copy of the Autobiography of Saint Theresa of Avila, finishing it in one sitting. The book convinced her that Catholicism was the true religion. She studied the catechism and the Mass and was baptized the following January.
Although she was drawn to the Carmelite spirituality and requested entrance into the local convent, her bishop was convinced that she could be a positive spiritual force for Catholic women in Germany and that she should remain “in the world” for the time being. She lectured and wrote about how women can have their special influence in the world and believed that they should not be denied higher education — that such education would help them to become better wives and mothers. Also, her bishop was fearful that entrance into the cloister would kill her aging mother, who looked upon her conversion as a betrayal of the family. For this reason, Edith’s sister, Rosa, waited until the mother died before she was baptized into the Faith.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, she knew trouble lay ahead for the Jewish people. She told a friend during Holy Week of that year, “I told Our Lord that I knew it was His cross that was now being placed upon the Jewish people; that most of them did not understand this, but that those who did would have to take it up willingly in the name of all. I would do that.” Shortly thereafter, she entered the Carmel of Cologne, taking her religious name. Little did she know at the time how prophetic that name was.
After five years in Cologne, Sister Benedicta’s superior became fearful for the safety of her Jewish nuns. The horrors of Kristalnacht, November 8, 1938, warned the sisters that they would be safer in the Netherlands; so they were brought to Echt. By this time Rosa had joined the convent as a Third Order Carmelite and served there as portress. As we have already seen, the Nazi Army ran over the Netherlands in 1940 and swept that unfortunate country into their Reich. Sister Benedicta’s last words upon leaving the Echt Carmel are the title of this article, which she spoke to her terrified sister as they were taken away, “Come, Rosa, we go for our people.”
There is so much to say about this holy nun. She was philosopher, mystic, teacher, writer, and martyr. Her writings fill seventeen volumes; her life is a testimony to the truth of the Catholic Faith. Saint Benedicta of the Cross was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1999.
Nota Bene: A wonderful and captivating book about Saint Benedicta and the other Jewish Catholics who were martyred together at Auschwitz is Edith Stein and Companions on the Way to Auschwitz, by Father Paul Hamans (Ignatius Press). Each chapter is a short biography of those murdered that day by gassing. Besides the Stein sisters, we learn about the Jewish nun who was a physician, the Bok family, the heart wrenching story of the Lob family — which gave the Church five Trappist monks, two priests, one brother, two nuns and one layman — as well as many other Jewish Catholic religious sacrificed to Hitler’s twisted philosophy. It is a recommended read.
Also recommended is Gary Potter’s fine article, Forgotten Converts, which concerns much of the same subject matter.