Reviewed by Marie L. BAIRD, Duquesne University, PITTSBURGH, PA 15282
This important new collection of perspectives on Edith Stein is a welcome addition to the body of evaluations that has already emerged in light of her beatification and canonization. Edited by Waltraud Herbstrith, OCD, a principal biographer of Stein, and translated into English by Stein's niece Susanne Batzdorff, it more than fulfills Steven Payne's characterization of it as "an open and honest exchange of views."(p. vi) The book alerts Christian readers to the problems surrounding the promotion of Stein's cause from a Jewish perspective, and presents clearly the Roman Catholic rationale and process for doing so. Although the book does not seek to formulate any definitive conclusions about the nature of her significance for Jews and Christians, all contributors agree that she was "a great, exceptional human being," to quote her niece Ilse Gordon.(p.59)
The collection is divided into two parts. Part I offers a number of contributions that may be summarized by the following themes: familial responses to her life and beatification; explanations of the process of beati- fication and the investigation of the miracle required for her canonization; and various Jewish and Christian evaluations of the significance of her life. Specific topics include her intellectual and philosophical development, her conversion to Christianity, the effects of the persecution of the Jewish people on her own life, her embrace of Carmel, and her deportation and murder in the gaschambers of Auschwitz. Part II focuses on a large number of personal reminiscences contributed by friends, colleagues, students, fellow-sisters, and two eyewitnesses to her temporary incarceration in the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork. Taken together, all these voices allow a richly textured, complex portrait of Edith Stein to emerge, one that goes beyond hagiography. We are invited to view the many facets of her personality: her shining intellect, personal modesty, a profound love for her family and people that had to struggle with the fact of her conversion and entrance into religious life. I was particularly struck by her forward looking vision that verged on the prophetic as she embraced a feminism remarkable for her time and attempted to persuade Pope Pius XI in 1933 to issue a statement denouncing anti-Semitism. (Her request for a papal audience was denied, her letter to him answered with a formulaic reply.)
This lapse on the part of the Vatican is only one of the many issues that raises the central question of Stein's appropriateness as a "bridge" or "sign of reconciliation" between Jews and Christians. Crucial to this question is the characterization of her death: did she die as a Christian martyr or as one Jew among millions hunted down on the basis of their so-called "racial inferiority?" As might be expected, Christian contributors tend to argue in favor of martyrdom while acknowledging fully Stein's Jewishness, whereas Jewish writers stress the fact of her Jewish birth and murder on that basis. However, some Jewish commentators also deny her status as a Jew given her conversion to Christianity. As a result, her symbolism as a potential "bridge" or "sign of reconciliation" remains enveloped by ambiguity in ongoing Jewish-Christian dialogue. As an appreciative reader of this volume I found myself immediately drawn into these controversies, agreeing with some contributors, disagreeing with others, but at all times thoroughly engaged in the careful analysis this book calls us to make.
I was especially gratified by several contributors' mention of Rosa Stein, sister and fellow-sufferer in deportation and death, as well as other family members killed by the Nazis. One can only wonder at the fact of Rosa Stein's relative anonymity, so poignantly expressed by John Sullivan,OCD and others. Surely an enduring evaluation of Edith Stein's place as a symbol of Shoah atrocity must include the most pointed references to her sister and the 6 million others who died an absolutely unmerited and horrific death--by any standards--at the hands of their National Socialist murderers. They all stand together as a symbol, and reminder, of what can happen when ideological self-interest eclipses the incontrovertible fact of universal humanity. At the very least she--and they--symbolize the devastating failure of the 20th century in that regard. Of this much we can be certain.