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Santa Rosa woman recalls aunt's wartorn journey to Catholic sainthood

Published: Sunday, March 31, 2013 at 3:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 1, 2013 at 10:39 a.m.

Poet, author and retired librarian Susanne Batzdorff of Santa Rosa may tell you that her Aunt Edith is a saint. She means it literally.

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Susannne Batzdorff holds a copy of her book "Aunt Edith" at her home in Santa Rosa on Thursday, March 28, 2013. Batzdorff's aunt Edith Stein was highly noted Catholic nun, and was killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz because of her Jewish roots.

(Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

Batzdorff has spent much of her 91 years admiring, mourning, studying and speaking, writing and debating about Edith Stein. Batzdorff's brilliant aunt is considered by some as one of the most remarkable women of the 20th century for her books on philosophy and for having left Judaism for Catholicism. She became a nun who was killed in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942 and recognized as a saint by the Vatican in 1998.

Batzdorff and Stein grew up in a large, tight Jewish family in a German city, Breslau, that following World War II would be ceded to Poland. Just about the time Batzdorff was born in 1921, her then 30-year-old aunt was finding herself drawn to Catholicism.

Stein wrote in an autobiography that she quit praying at age 14 and for a time regarded herself an atheist. "She said she was searching for the truth and she didn't find it in Judaism," Batzdorff said.

Stein came upon a book on the life of St. Teresa of Avila at a friend's house, read it and then delved far further into the Roman Catholic Church. Her baptism on the first day of 1922 was wrenching for her family.

"They thought she was abandoning her heritage," said Batzdorff, a 30-year Sonoma County resident and observant Jew.

But her Aunt Edith was resolute. Already the holder of a Ph.D in philosophy at the time of her conversion, Stein deepened her Christian faith while teaching at a Dominican girls' high school and becoming a widely respected writer and lecturer in the nascent area of philosophy known as phenomenology.

In the spring of 1933, months after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Stein was dismissed from her position as a lecturer at the German Institute for Scientific Pedagogy. She was fired because her Jewish heritage offended the Nazis who'd issued a decree defining a non-Aryan as "anyone descended from non-Aryan, especially Jewish, parents or grandparents."

Incensed and alarmed by the burgeoning acts of anti-Semitism by Hitler and the National Socialist Party, Stein acted boldly -- she asked to meet with her pope, Pius XI, to beseech him to break his silence and speak out forcefully against the racist abuses by the Nazis.

Denied an audience, she wrote the Pope a letter that was released by the Vatican only 10 years ago. In it, Stein wrote, "As a child of the Jewish people who, by the grace of God, for the past 11 years has also been a child of the Catholic Church, I dare to speak to the Father of Christianity about that which oppresses millions of Germans."

She wrote that she and other German Catholics "fear the worst for the prestige of the Church, if the silence continues any longer.

"We are convinced that this silence will not be able in the long run to purchase peace with the present German government. For the time being, the fight against Catholicism will be conducted quietly and less brutally than against Jewry, but no less systematically."

Pius XI did not, at that time, use the power of his position to openly oppose the Nazis. Rather, the Vatican entered into negotiations at the invitation of Berlin, and in July of 1933 the two parties signed the "Concordat" that confirmed "the friendly relations existing between the Holy See and the German Reich."

Despite that agreement, Pius XI did not trust or favor Hitler and his party, and four years later, on Palm Sunday in 1937, he issued a strongly worded encyclical, or letter to Catholics worldwide, condemning Nazism. It declared: "None but superficial minds could stumble into concepts of a national God, of a national religion; or attempt to lock within the frontiers of a single people, within the narrow limits of a single race. . ."

A new book by journalist Peter Eisner makes the case that in 1938, an ailing Pius XI sought the help of an American priest, John LaForge, in the drafting of another encyclical far stronger in its contempt for Hitler, Mussolini and the assault on Jews.

"The Pope's Last Crusade: How an American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI's Campaign to Stop Hitler" (Harper Collins, 2013) says that conservatives within the Vatican conspired, successfully, to see that the new encyclical was not released.

In 1933, it anguished Edith Stein to be denied a meeting with the pope and to fail to persuade him to speak out against the Nazis. Despite that, she not only remained in the church but she became a nun. In October of '33, she entered a Carmelite monastery in Cologne.

The following year, she was clothed as Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross. An older sister, Rosa, who had also converted to Catholicism, became a nun along with her.

While a cloistered nun, Stein wrote two of her most important books, "Finite and Eternal Being" and "Science of the Cross."

The year she entered the monastery marked the last time that her niece, Batzdorff, would ever see her. In 1933 and '34, the family in Breslau was becoming increasingly anxious about their safety.

Batzdorff's childhood neighbor and future husband, Alfred Batzdorff, fled Germany shortly after Kristallnacht, the series of coordinated attacks against Jews throughout Germany and parts of Austria in November of 1938. Susanne Batzdorff, was 17 when she left for America with her mother and a brother in February 1939.

But many members of her family did not find refuge from the Holocaust. Four of her mother's six siblings died at the hands of the Third Reich.

And among those four were the nuns born as Edith and Rosa Stein. Their chosen religion meant nothing to Nazi authorities more interested in their Jewish heritage.

Batzdorff said that as nuns, her aunts "had to wear a Jewish star on their habits and register with the Gestapo."

Late in 1938, just after Batzdorff escaped to America, the church moved the sisters to a monastery in the Netherlands, thinking they would be safer there. For a time, they were.

But in 1942, the German government, by now at war with the United States, struck back in reprisal for a pastoral letter that Dutch Catholic priests read at Mass on the Sunday of July 26. The letter condemned "the unmerciful and unjust treatment meted out to Jews."

In retribution, Hitler's government ordered the arrest of all Catholics of Jewish descent in the Netherlands. Three hundred were rounded up, including the Stein sisters.

As Gestapo officers seized her, Edith Stein said to her sister, Rosa, "Come, we are going for our people."

The Stein sisters were killed by gassing at Auschwitz on Aug. 9, 1942.

It was 20 years later that German Archbishop Josef Cardinal Frings commenced the process of beatification, a precursor to sainthood, for Edith Stein. Her niece Batzdorff and other relatives from around the world were present -- along the Pope John Paul II -- at the May, 1987, beatification ceremony that filled a stadium in Cologne.

And Batzdorff and 96 other relatives attended the canonization of Saint Teresia Benedicta of the Cross in Rome in October of 1998. The following year, Pope John Paul II declared the martyred nun a patron saint of Europe.

Through the decades, the story of Edith Stein and her sainthood has both calmed and roiled conflict between Jews and Catholics. There continues to be conversation within and beyond a number of Edith Stein centers, guilds and societies in the U.S. and Europe that promote Jewish-Catholic dialogue.

Batzdorff wrote in her own contribution to the subject, "Aunt Edith: The Jewish Heritage of a Catholic Saint," that the Jewish people cannot forgive "the perpetrators of the Holocaust of those who stood silently by."

However, she adds, "If we examine our past and admit our mistakes honestly, we can go forward confidently and work together for common goals.

"And with God's blessing we can go about the task of tikkun olam, repairing the world."

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