As I travel around I gather images that speak to me. They may inspire thoughts, poems or verses from the Bible. Many of the images are from small churches although some will be inspired by our great Catholic heritage such as Montserrat and La Sagrada Familia from my recent visit to Barcelona. I queued a long time to see Our Lady of Montserrat and had only a few seconds with her but as I looked into her kind and gentle face I felt something pass between us – something I can’t explain. We live in a busy, noisy world where images flash past us all the time. So, we need to pause and drink in the beauty that is around us. Share the images that have inspired you…
Auschwitz was at that time a small provincial Polish town, which was to give its name to the notorious concentration camp, opened nearby by order of Himmler for political prisoners on April 27, 1940. The first camp was rather small in size and was called, subsequently, Auschwitz I. In October 1941, a far more extensive camp was set up, named after a neighboring village, Auschwitz II-Birkenau (Encyclopaedia Judaica Vol. 3, Coll. 854-871). From March 1942, Jews were directed to the second camp.
Mass murders of Jewish prisoners by Zyklon B (prussic acid) gas was instituted at Birkenau as from January 1942, at the instigation of Adolf Eichmann, who was in overall command of the execution of the “Final Solution” of the Jewish Problem by genocide, decided on by the Nazis at Wansee in 1941. The gassing continued for two years and ten months, during which time a million Jews perished in the camp.
The convoys arrived at the rate of three or four a day; they were usually met at the platform by the Camp Commandant, Rudolph Hoess, later executed for war-crimes, and the infamous Dr. Mengele, who performed the “Selektion”, strong prisoners being separated for forced labor in mines and factories, the remainder being consigned for immediate “elimination.”
The first transport of prisoners from Holland arrived in July 1942; the one carrying our Saint was, perhaps, the third, being preceded by a transport of men which had reached the camp that afternoon.
The newcomers were taken to barracks and told to leave their clothes on a numbered peg, to be retrieved after the shower, which they were falsely led to believe would follow. Women usually had their hair cut off. The prisoners had then to walk four hundred meters along a path till they came to a large room, with tubes running across the ceiling. Force was used to get them to enter, when necessary. The metal doors were locked, levers operated and the gas introduced into the rooms. Twenty to twenty-five minutes later, electric-pumps evacuated the gas, allowing special commando-units to enter and empty the chambers. Not all the victims were dead. Gold dentures were removed and the corpses carted away to be thrown into a common fosse. Crematoria had not yet been installed at Auschwitz; but, later, to obliterate traces of their crimes, the Nazis exhumed the corpses and had them burnt.
From the moment of the arrival of a convoy to the extermination of the victims, no more than an hour and a half would elapse, as a rule. The killing of human beings became a monotonous routine.
Saint Edith, her companions and a thousand other Hebrew Catholics died in the gas-chambers of Auschwitz II-Birkenau on the morning of August 9th from suffocation by prussic acid fumes. She then entered into her glory, accompanied, as we like to believe, by many others.
Some Hebrew Catholic Companions of Saint Edith in her Ordeal
Saint Edith Stein was accompanied by a group of Hebrew Catholics throughout her ordeal; they lived with her, prayed with her, shared her spiritual sentiments, and died, most of them, together with her in the same gas-chamber. They are the rays of light that scintillate around our Saint’s crown of glory. Divine Providence wanted to give the world an example of an ideal Hebrew Catholic Community, though one assembled under duress and for a short period only.
We recall a few names, those most closely associated with Saint Edith in her trial.
Rosa, Edith’s sister
She was the only member of the Stein family to follow Edith into the Church, delaying her entry until the death of her mother, so as to spare the latter the suffering her entry would have occasioned her. She became a Tertiary Carmelite and rendered service to the Nuns at Echt, from where she left with her sister, Edith, for Auschwitz.
Dr. Bromberg and his family
The Doctor, his wife, son and daughter travelled in the transport from Amersfoort to Westerbork. They survived the war, as by a miracle. Mrs. Bromberg, who was very close to Edith, left a fine testimony to her bearing during the two days Edith spent in the camp. The son was ordained a priest in the Dominican Order after the war: Fr. Ignatius Bromberg, O.P.
The Löb family
The father was a Dr. Löb; of his five children, two became Trappist priests, two Trappistines, and one, a Trappist lay-brother. The two priests deployed an admirable ministry amongst the prisoners, proving a benediction to them in their distress. All were to die with Edith and Rosa.
Sister Judith Mendez da Costa
Her family had left Portugal in the 16th century to settle in Amsterdam. She became a Dominican nun and was conventual in Bilthoven from where she was carried off by the Gestapo on August 2nd. Her distant Portuguese origin provided an excuse, so that she was set free for a while and returned to her convent on the 15th August. On the 25th February 1944, she and the entire Portuguese community were transferred from Westerbork to Theresienstadt camp and from there to Auschwitz (16th May) where they were all gassed. Her brother and sister died in the torment. Sister Judith managed to send to her Superior a detailed description of her stay in Westerbork, from August 4th to August 15th, during which time she met Saint Edith.
She entered the Church in 1932, Edith Stein standing as her godmother. Two years later she entered the Sisters of the Good Shepherd as a postulant. Circumstances in Germany being what they were at the time, she was sent to Holland. On account of her asthma, she was not accepted as a religious, but remained on as a lay-helper to the Sisters in several of their establishments. At 5 o’clock on the morning of August 2nd, she was snatched from her convent at Almelo by the Gestapo and sent to Amersfoort camp, from where she accompanied our Saint on the journey to Auschwitz.
Dr. Ruth Kantorowicz of the Ursuline Convent at Venlo
She had been an old friend of Edith’s. She was arrested on August 2nd and carried off to Amersfoort and then in a goods-train to Hooghalen. She was one of those who were forced to walk across fields, woods and hedges to the Westerbork camp. In answer to an urgent note, the Ursulines sent her supplies with two gentlemen. These saw her in the camp with Edith Stein, both wearing the yellow star-shaped patch. She remarked that the Trappist priests had not been able to celebrate Holy Mass for them. She left with Edith for Auschwitz.
Since 1940, she had been resident in the lodge of the Trappistine Abbey near Tilburg. She was a medical doctor of Polish-Jewish origin, acquainted with our Saint with whom she had exchanged several letters. At Tilburg, she rendered valuable services to the community as doorkeeper and community doctor. She was a member of the Dominican Third Order and was regarded by the Trappistines as one of themselves.
In a letter addressed to her confessor from Westerbork, dated “Transfiguratio, 6, VIII.” she expressed the most admirable spiritual sentiments, showing to what extent our Saint was seconded in her intentions by other Hebrew Catholics.
We quote the following passages from her letter:
“I want to send you my last greetings and to tell you that I have complete confidence in God and have surrendered myself entirely to His will. Even more — I regard it as a grace and privilege to be driven along this road under these conditions, a witness to the words of our good Fathers and shepherds in Christ.
“If our sufferings have been increased somewhat then we have received a double portion of grace and a glorious crown is being prepared for us in heaven. Rejoice with me. I am going forward unshaken, confidently and joyfully — like the Sisters who are with me — to testify to Jesus Christ and to bear witness to the Truth in company with our Bishops. We are going as children of Our Holy Mother, the Church; we will unite our sufferings with the sufferings of our King, our Saviour and our Bridegroom, sacrificing ourselves for the conversion, for the Jews, for those who persecute us, so that all may know the peace of Christ and his Kingdom. Join with me in thanking God for this great favor by singing an exultant Magnificat.”
The letter was signed, Sister M. Magdalena Dominica
(in the world, Dr. Meirowsky).
In our humble option, the sentiments that emanate from Dr. Meirowsky’s letter are no less sublime than those expressed by the early Christian martyrs as they went to their death by fire, by torture and by the lions, in the arenas of the Roman Empire.
“When they reached a place called Gethsemane, he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray’ and he took Peter and James and John with him. Horror and dismay came over him and he said to them, ‘My heart is ready to break with grief; stop here and stay awake.’ Then he went forward a little, threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, this hour might pass him by. ‘Abba, Father all things are possible to thee; take this cup away from me. Yet not what I will, but what thou wilst.’” Mark 26: 32-36
“As they led him away to execution they seized upon a man called Simon from Cyrene, on his way back from the country, put the cross on his back and made him walk behind Jesus carrying it.
“Great numbers of people followed, many women among them, who mourned and lamented over him. Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; no, weep for yourselves and your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say “Happy are the barren, the wombs that never bore a child, the breasts that never fed one.” Then they will start saying to the mountains, “Fall on us,” and to the hills, “Cover us.” For if these things are done when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?’” Luke 23: 26-31
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be
(Any suitable prayer or request may be said here)
Saint Edith, Pray For Us!
This sculpture is a call for reconciliation after the devastation of the Second World War. Copies exist at sites that were deeply affected by the war: in Coventry Cathedral, the Hiroshima Peace Museum and this one – in the former border strip of the Berlin Wall.
We must never become complacent and think that this could not happen again.
Saint Edith and her fellow-prisoners spent two days in the wagons of a goods-train which took them from Westerbork in Holland through Germany to Auschwitz in Poland. The convoy numbered exactly 987 persons, men, women and children, each wagon being crowded with from fifty to eighty prisoners. Conditions inside the wagons were horrendous.
The train arrived at Auschwitz at ten o’clock on the evening of Saturday, August 8th, and was checked in as bringing a load of insane patients. Two workmen who noticed our Saint Edith on the platform in her Carmelite habit muttered to one another that she, at least, did not appear to be mad. Any communication with the victims was strictly forbidden.
“So they took Jesus and he went out bearing his own cross to the place called the place of the skull, which is called in Hebrew Golgotha.”
The transport had been due to leave on Thursday, August 6th, but the departure was postponed for one reason or another, On Thursday afternoon, a woman arrived at the camp carrying civilian clothes for the Sisters. It was supposed, therefore, that they would be obliged to change on their arrival at the frontier, though it does not appear that a change of habit actually took place.
During Thursday afternoon, the Jewish Council drew up lists of those persons due to be transported on the next convoy for Auschwitz, the lists being read out to them Thursday night, so that the people concerned could make what preparation they thought necessary. The Gestapo had given the Council stern instructions to make no exemptions from their particular transport. As a matter of fact, the Bromberg family and Sister Judith were left behind on some technical ground. The family was fortunate enough to survive the persecution; but Sister Judith was to die at Auschwitz later, in 1944 .
On Friday morning, August 7th, at half-past three, a long row of prisoners, men, women and children, lined the road running through the camp. It included our Saint Edith, Rosa, and a thousand other Hebrew Catholics. The entire barracks had been cleared. S.S. men now took over from the Dutch gendarmes and gruffly ordered the line to start moving. They crowded them into goods-trains, filled to suffocation. Saint Edith and the other Sisters, still dressed in their habits, were in the middle section of the train. The other prisoners were in prison-uniform, though the fact is disputed. It is touching to learn that the train passed through Breslau, only 50 to 60 kilometers from Auschwitz, on its way to the Polish frontier. Breslau, was our Saint’s birthplace, though the wagons were so well sealed that she might well have been unconscious of the fact. At Scifferstadt, however, a door might have been opened for a few moments, during which time, our Edith managed to recognize an ex-pupil standing on the platform and to convey to her greetings for her Sisters. “Tell them” she said “I am on my way to the East.” Perhaps she was unaware that she was on her way to Auschwitz.
Many died en route, though permission was not granted to remove the corpses. The thirst, hunger and suffering, both mental and physical, of the passengers in those “death-trains” can be imagined.
“And taking the Twelve, he said to them, ‘Behold we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written of the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spat upon; they will scourge him and kill him and on the third day he will rise.’ But they understood nothing of these things; this saying was hid from them and they did not grasp what was said.” Luke 18:31-34
The camp consisted of thousands and thousands of huts surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence, with many watchtowers manned by gendarmes with machine-guns and searchlights, to thwart any attempt at escape. In it were assembled at the time one thousand two hundred Hebrew Catholics, amongst whom were a dozen or so religious. These were still dressed in their religious habits, on which was sewn a yellow star-shaped patch, sign of their infamy in the eyes of the Nazis. Saint Edith encountered acquaintances and even members of her family in the camp.
The prisoners were looked after by a Jewish Council which showed particular kindness to the Hebrew Catholics, of which assistance the latter were quickly deprived when the Camp Commandant ordered them to be isolated from the others
The morning began with a quick medical examination, after which a woman orderly led the religious to their barracks, a dirty hut full of mud. The Sisters washed at a little basin. They recited their morning prayers, followed by meditation, while their guards marched up and down outside their enclosure. The two Carmelites recited the full Office, while the others recited the Little Office of Our Lady, as they were accustomed to do.
At 7 a.m. there was a break, during which they were allowed to perambulate inside their enclosure for a while. After breakfast, they could obtain coffee in the kitchen. They were then instructed to clean their quarters.
At midday, the prisoners were stripped of their valuables, gold, silver, money, down to the smallest change, and were led to a huge wooden building to have their particulars registered. For the next four hours they filed through the building from table to table filling in forms about their personal effects and circumstances. Incidentally, there was in the same building a kitchen, used on occasion for concerts. After the registration was completed, each was photographed seated on a stool holding a slate in one hand on which his or her prison-number had been chalked. The sentiment of being in prison became overpowering at that moment.
Meals consisted of potatoes and carrots, invariably. The Sisters were allowed to distribute their ration from a tureen brought into their barracks; the others had to line up at the kitchen.
The men were then finally separated from the women. Sister Judith Mendez da Costa, a Dominican, whose family, of Portuguese origin, had settled in Holland centuries before, was calm enough to remark, in a letter she wrote to her Superior from the camp, that the weather was beautiful.
August 5th – August 7th
In the Westerbork Assembly Camp
We are fortunate to have several testimonies to the bearing of Saint Edith during her sojourn at the Westerbork camp.
Before leaving Westerbork, Saint Edith managed to send off two notes to her Prioress, written with a pencil on two sheets of paper torn out of a writing pad. In the first note, there is a sentence which reflects her inner attitude during the ordeal:
“One can only learn a Scientia Crucis, if one feels the Cross in one’s own person. I was convinced of this from the first and have said with all my heart: Ave Crux, spes unica” (Hail, O Cross, our only hope).
Mrs. Bromberg, who together with her family, all Hebrew Catholics, accompanied Edith from Amersfoort to Westerbork, where she was in close contact with the Carmelite nun. As we noted, the family survived the war and Mrs. Bromberg gave the following testimony, which was written down by her son, Fr. Ignatius Bromberg, O.P.:
“The great difference between Edith Stein and the other Sisters lay in her silence. My personal impression is that she was deeply sorrowful, but without anxiety. I cannot express myself better than by saying that she gave the impression of bearing such an enormous load of sorrow that even when she did smile, it only made her look more sorrowful. She hardly ever spoke, but she often looked at her sister, Rosa, with indescribable sorrow. She was thinking of the suffering she foresaw awaited others, not of her own. Her whole appearance, as I picture her in my memory sitting in that hut, suggested only one thought to me, a Pietà without Christ, a Rachel weeping for her children.”
The next equally striking testimony comes from a Jewish businessman from Cologne, Julius Markan, who had been put in charge of the prisoners at Westerbork Camp and, along with his wife, was spared deportation. He wrote:
“Amongst the prisoners who were brought in on the 5th of August, Sister Benedicta stood out on account of her calmness and composure. The distress in the barracks and the stir caused by the new arrivals were indescribable. Sister Benedicta was just like an angel, going around amongst the women, comforting them, helping them and calming them. Many of the mothers were near to distraction; they had not bothered about their children the whole day long, but just sat brooding in dumb despair. Sister Benedicta took care of the little children, washed them and combed them, attending to their feeding and other needs. During the whole of her stay there, she washed and cleaned for people, following one act of charity with another, until everyone wondered at her goodness.”
Our Saint spent as much time as she could in prayer, never complaining, neither about the food nor about the behavior of the soldiers. Everyone, Rosa the first, benefited from her uplifting example.
Dr. Wielek, employed in office work at the Westerbork camp when the transport carrying Edith and her sister Rosa arrived there, was questioned in the course of the diocesan canonical process. He rendered the following testimony to her bearing during her stay in the camp:
“She went about, talking, praying, like a saint. In one conversation she said to me: ‘The world is made up of opposites, but in the end nothing remains of these contrasts. What only remains is great love. How is it possible for it to be otherwise?’ She spoke with such security and humility as to conquer all her listeners. A conversation with her was a voyage to another world. In those moments, Westerbork ceased to exist. By now there was no doubt that she and the other baptized (Jews) would be deported elsewhere in a few hours time. I asked her whom she wanted me to inform about what was happening and whether I could do anything to help her. She replied asking why should an exception be made for her or her group? It was only just that the fact of being baptized should not bring her any privilege. Her life would be ruined if she could not participate in the fate of the others.”
“So also the chief priests, with the scribes and the elders mocked him saying, ‘He saved others, he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross and we will believe in him. He trusts in God, let God deliver him now, if he desires him.’” Matthew 27:41-42
“And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.” Mark 15:33
“Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and after examining him I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him, neither did Herod for he sent him back to us. Behold, nothing deserving death has been done by him.’” Luke 23:13-15
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be
(Any suitable prayer may be said here)
Saint Edith, Pray For Us!
A conversation with her was a voyage to another world.
On Tuesday evening, August 4th, the prisoners were loaded on to a railway-coach and taken to the railway-station at Amersfoort, under strict orders not to raise the curtains of their compartments. From the cries of the station-master they gathered that their train was on its way to Westerbork. Passing Apeldoorn, Zwolle, Meppel Hogeven, the train reached Hooghalen, in North Holland, so many fresh names on their way of the cross.
The Westerbork assembly camp may be five kilometers from the Hooghalen railway-station. The train carrying our prisoners came to a stop in an open stretch of country, where they descended from the coaches; it must have been about three o’clock in the morning. A detachment of twenty men wearing armbands was waiting to help them transfer their luggage to two horse-drawn wagons, on to which the sick, the old and the religious also mounted. The others were herded in the dark across fields, through woods and hedges for an hour till they reached the camp. By now, it was the morning of August 5th, Wednesday.
“Pilate’s soldiers then took Jesus into the Governor’s headquarters, where they collected the whole company round him. First they stripped him and dressed him in a scarlet mantle; and plaiting a crown of thorns they placed it on his head, with a cane in his right hand. Falling on their knees before him they jeered at him: ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They spat on him and used the cane to beat him about the head. Finally, when the mockery was over, they took off the mantle and dressed him in his own clothes.” Matthew 27: 27-31
When the vans reached the camp, they emptied their passengers who were taken over by the S.S. guards. These began to drive them, cursing and swearing, beating them on their backs with their truncheons, into a hut where they were to pass the night without having had a meal.
The hut was divided into two sections, one for men, one for women. It was separated from the main lager by a barbed-wire fence. Altogether, the lager held at that moment, about three hundred men, women and children.
The beds were iron frames arranged in a double tier, without mattresses of any kind. Our prisoners threw themselves on the bare springs trying to snatch a few minutes sleep; but few slept that night, if only because the guards kept switching the lights off and on, from time to time, as a precaution against attempts to escape, which was next to impossible in any case. Their cold harsh voices filled the prisoners with anxiety about the future and, in these circumstances, it is anxiety which can turn a prison into a hell on earth.
The religious grouped themselves spontaneously into a little community which regarded Saint Edith as its Superior, so unquestionable was the ascendancy of her spirit. Arrangements were made to recite the Breviary, the Rosary and to meditate. A copy of the Imitation of Christ which had been smuggled into the camp provided matter for meditation. The Confiteor was sung daily, despite the catcalls of the guards.
The two Trappist priests were unable to celebrate Holy Mass and distribute Holy Communion at Amersfoort; but they heard confessions and did what they could to redress the morale of the internees, shaken by the sudden change in their fortunes. Their presence was a blessing, all the more so, since it was generally felt that the journey was a ‘journey to heaven’ as one Sister put it; for them there would be no return. On one occasion, the guards stood the two Trappist Fathers against a wall and pointed their guns at them, in the presence of the Sisters — all for a joke.
The prisoners were resigned to their fate; no one criticized the Dutch Bishops for the pastoral letter, the publication of which was the immediate cause of their distress, for no one knew whether there were not other causes at work.
Twice a day the prisoners were granted a respite; they were allowed to walk around inside their barbed-wire enclosure for ten to fifteen minutes under the watchful eyes of their German guards. The hygienic facilities in the camp can be left to the imagination. The guards forced them to stand for hours waiting for the roll-call to take place. One starving internee picked up a piece of dry bread that had been thrown away; for the ‘theft’, the entire camp was punished by being made to stand for hours on end in the barracks-square, until they began to drop down from sheer exhaustion. It was the signal for a series of kickings and beatings as the guards tried to force their prisoners onto their feet again.
“You will then be handed over for punishment and execution and men of all nations will hate you for your allegiance to me.” Matthew 24:9
“Jesus was led off under arrest to the house of Caiaphas the High Priest, where the lawyers and elders were assembled … The chief priests and the whole Council tried to find some allegation against Jesus on which a death-sentence could be based, but they failed to find one … The High Priest tore his robes and exclaimed, ‘Blasphemy! Need we call further witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. What is your opinion?’ ‘He is guilty,’ they answered; ‘he should die.’ Then they spat in his face and beat him with their fists.” Matthew 26:57
“The men who were guarding Jesus mocked him. They beat him, they blindfolded him and they kept asking him, ‘Now, prophet, who hit you? Tell us that.’ And so they went on, heaping insults upon him.” Luke 22: 63-65
“Herod and his troops treated him with contempt and ridicule.” Luke 23:11
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be
(Any suitable prayer may be said here)
Saint Edith, Pray For Us!
The police van drove our Saint Edith and her sister, Rosa, from the Carmel of Echt to the police headquarters in Roermond, first station on their way of the cross. Late the same day, they were transported to the Amersfoort transit camp.
That Sunday, August 2nd, the Nazis raffled about three hundred Hebrew Catholics throughout Holland, bringing them to Amersfoort, from the north and the south of the country. The transport from Roermond in the south was composed of two police vans, one packed with thirteen, the other with seventeen persons. The one in which our Edith travelled, was taking, apart from Rosa, six other female religious, all Hebrew Catholics. These included Sister Judith Mendez da Costa, a Dominican nun, and two Trappistines, sisters germain, from the remarkable family, Löb; of their three brothers, arrested with them, two were Trappists priests and one, a lay brother of the same Order. The wife and children of the writer Herman de Man travelled in the same transport.
The journey from Roermond to Amersfoort was usually a matter of three to four hours; but, on this occasion, the driver lost his way on account of the blackout and brought the prisoners to Amersfoort only at three o’clock the next morning, Monday August 3rd.
“And Jesus said to them: ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.’” Mark 10:39
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be
(Any suitable prayer may be said here)
Saint Edith, Pray For Us!