Book Review of Edith Stein: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross by Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda
One of the things one does when choosing to join the Catholic Church is pick a Saint to identify with. For years I thought about the Saint my father was most connected with, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, The Lily of the Mohawks. I think he was most interested in her because of the Mohawk part of the family whom we visited every time we dropped in to the Mohawk reserve at Tyendinaga, near Picton, Ontario. My mother’s favourite was Saint Therese de Lisieux, or as my mother would call her, with her harsh inner city Toronto accent, Saint Theresa Little Flower. Every time we drove past the shrine for St. Therese in the Kingston Road area in east Toronto, she would reiterate the story of the Saint. So I read all about the two of them and considered making one of them my own.
But this year, in the RCIA class, the leader mentioned choosing a Saint with whom you personally resonated. One you could hold up as being like you but perhaps the best version you could aspire to.
I started thinking about Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, aka Edith Stein, the Jewess who converted to Catholicism and was martyred during WWII by the Nazis. I had a dream years ago, where I found myself at a family dinner celebrating Passover. While I was sitting there, talking to everyone and complaining about my (supposed) identity as a Jew and what that meant, I suddenly found myself transported to Auschwitz, in the company of another younger woman. We were then sent into the “showers” where we died. I woke up from the “death experience” to find myself back at the table with the others, and in quite a state. I realized what it truly meant to have been persecuted and murdered at the time. I then woke up again, only this time into my own life. I was quite shaken and filled with understanding of something which I had heard about and read of but now could really deeply connect with.
Growing up in Oshawa, Ontario, many of my friends were Jewish as were my mother’s. They were just part of my life and I never thought anything of it. When our leader in the RCIA brought up the topics of different Saints to look at, she mentioned Edith Stein, whom I was aware of but didn’t really know much about. I went to our Church Library and borrowed several books about her, including this biography.
This particular biography was very interesting and written in a similar style as the book about Father Damien, which I reviewed a while back. It includes the history of the family, Germany and its move into Naziism, intertwined with Edith’s personal journey from a non-practising Jewish woman, through her study of philosophy, agnosticism and finally into Catholicism, and taking her vows as a Discalced Carmelite nun. Her philosophical journey and beliefs mimicked my own. I was able to totally understand her thinking.
She was also a teacher, as was I, a poet and writer, as am I, and a convert, as am I. When you read her books, you discover just how brilliant she was. Her death was an unbelievably tragedy. One can only wonder what would she could have shared with us had she lived.
I found myself in absolute tears at the end of the book when I read the following, which is a quote from David A. Adler’s book, We Remember the Holocaust. New York, Scholastic, 1989
“There were shower heads and fake drains in the bathhouses, but no water. The ‘attendants’ often shot bullets into the room to force the prisoners to crowd closer together. The doors were locked. SS guards wearing gas masks dropped poison pellets through an opening in the ceiling. Poison fumes filled the room. At times Nazi guards watched through peepholes as [the innocent women] gasped and struggled for air in the last moments of life. When the screaming stopped, the Nazis knew the Jews were dead. The gassing took from three to fifteen minutes. The doors were opened. The bodies dragged out with metal hooks. Wedding rings were pulled off. Mouths were pried open in search of gold-filled teeth…. The dead women’s hair was used to fill pillows and mattresses” (Adler page 79) The bodies were then taken to one of Auschwitz’s five crematoria, ovens, where they were burned. “Some of the ashes from these ovens were used to fertilize German gardens. The skin of some dead Jews was used to make lampshades. The fat was used to make soap. Hair was used to make coarse cloth used in industry.” (Adler, page 8)
I remember being at my Auntie Ann’s one Christmas Eve when a friend of my parents showed up with a lamp. The shade was made from the skin of Jewish people who had been murdered in the camps. My mother explained it to me. My dad was not amused with what the fellow had brought. My dad was a man who believed in the equality of all and was willing to fight for that belief. I can still see the lampshade in my mind.
There was some debate re the Sainthood of Edith Stein; arguments that she was martyred because of her being a Jew and not because she was a Catholic and how that should affect everything. Having read this book and another biography of her, I think as a Catholic martyr she was already a Saint by her behaviour. She didn’t have to go. She didn’t run away like she could have but accepted her future with grace. Her behaviour was like Jesus right to and through the end.
This is an awesome and very moving read.
Five stars all the way. 5 *****
I highly recommend it.
Here’s a link to the book on Amazon.com.
And to the author’s amazon page. She’s written quite a few books and has a blog.