In August of 1942, I was a happy 12-old kid spending the summer on the Mississippi gulf coast with my uncle, aunt, and cousins and having not a care in the world. I had just finished my first year of high school. Pearl Harbor had occurred the previous December, and our troops were fighting in the Pacific but not in Europe since D-Day didn’t take place until 1944. We spent much of our time in our spacious front yard which faced the gulf, or in the water itself.
We had no real idea of what was really going on in Europe. On August 2 of that year, the Gestapo agents appeared at the door of the Carmelite monastery of Nuns in a little Dutch town called Echt. There they demanded to see Sister Teresa Benedicta, known in the world as Edith Stein. She was a German Jewish woman who had been a very prominent teacher in Germany before Hitler came to power. She had become a Catholic and was teaching and writing extensively. But the Nazi rise made life in Germany nearly impossible for the Jews. So she entered the Carmelite convent in Cologne, which she had wanted to do for some time. But as the anti-semitism of the Third Reich became more insane and fanatical, the nuns thought it wise to send her to their monastery across the border in Holland. However, in 1940 the Nazis invaded Holland, too. There was no escape. Even though she was now a Catholic and a cloistered nun, that made no difference to the Nazis. She was still a Jewess, and therefore to be exterminated.
I have stood at the door through which she entered the monastery in Echt—and through which she exited it with the Gestapo agents. The rosary I carry in my pocket has rested in the choir stall in that chapel that she used to occupy. I was there in 1990. Seven years later, I was able to visit the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz in Poland to which she was taken in a cattle car with many other unfortunate Jews heading for the gas chambers. She was taken from the monastery in Holland on August 2. That train arrived at Auschwitz about six days later, and it is thought that she and those Dutch and German Jews with her were taken immediately to the gas chamber.
Last year, I was able to visit the Dominican convent in Speyer, Germany, where Saint Edith Stein taught between the time of her conversion to the Church and her entrance into the Carmelite monastery. What used to be her room is now a small chapel kept in her honor. There is in that room an urn containing the human ashes that can be found all over the ground near the crematories at Auschwitz. After gassing their victims, the Nazis cremated the bodies and then scattered the ashes on the ground around the crematories. And from that hell of hatred and malice, the soul of this woman rose to heaven. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II — a saint who was being martyred as I played on the beaches of the Mississippi gulf coast. Thank you for seeking God’s truth, God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.