By Sandro F. Piedrahita
Based on the life of Edith Stein, a German Jewish philosopher and Christian nun martyred in an Auschwitz gas chamber
Dedicated to my daughter Sofia's grandfather George Nemes, a Catholic Jew who survived the Shoah
“But those whom you have
chosen for companions
above the fence at Auschwitz…
They here must stand with you
beneath the Cross…”
Edith Stein, Prayer to Mary
The train is crowded with people, sweaty, dirty, disheveled, with fear and despair painted on their faces. They come in all ages and from all stages in life: doctors, lawyers, poets, plumbers, carpenters and even the occasional religious. Sister Teresa Blessed by the Cross looks at the crammed multitude inside the train – there is barely any space to move – and feels a deep sorrow. She had tried to help them, even sent a letter to the Pope seeking his intervention, wanted to be a modern Esther delivering the Jews from the hands of the Antichrist, but it had been to no avail. Now she sees how some huddle in groups, those who are fortunate enough to be with their families, and how others stand alone in the crowded train leading each and every one of them to their deaths. And yet in some of their faces she sees courage, strength, resilience. They are the people of God, and they have not forgotten.
“Where are they taking us?” her sister Rosa asks.
“To Auschwitz,” Sister Teresa responds. “To the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. But not everybody knows it.”
“Aren’t you terrified?” inquires Rosa. “You seem so calm.”
“I’m deathly afraid. I cannot deny it. But we must not be tempted to despair.”
Sister Teresa is still dressed in her black Carmelite’s habit, with a white cornette on her head. A young guard approaches her, probably no older than twenty, and cries out at her with a voice full of an intense and inexplicable hatred.
“Who are you pretending to be, you filthy Jew?” he asks. “Dressed like a nun in an effort to escape the fate you deserve as a judin.”
“I’m a Catholic and have dedicated my life to Christ,” Sister Teresa responds calmly. “But don’t believe for a moment that I’m trying to conceal that I’m also a Jew. I’m a Catholic by decision, a Jew by race and history. I’m prepared to share in the fate of my Jewish brothers and sisters, regardless of what you intend.”
“You’ll soon see what that is,” the young guard snarls at her. “You’ll see what fate awaits you.” And then the young guard leaves her, moving across the crowds angrily, making his way forcefully pushing those in his path as if they were not humans but cattle.
“Do you think it will be painful? Being gassed I mean.” Rosa asks her sister the question as if she wants a comforting answer, but doesn’t expect it.
“I have no idea,” answers Sister Teresa. “But I don’t think it should last too long.”
“Do you think we’ll be killed immediately? Or will they keep us locked up in the concentration camp for a while?”
“I don’t know. Oh my Rosa! Stop killing yourself with worry! Put yourself in the hands of God. Abandon yourself to His Mercy.”
“How can you continue to believe? In the God of the Jews or that of the Christians? How could a just and loving God allow all the Jews to be murdered – the old, the women, little babes in arms – and in such a horrible way?”
“That is not the handiwork of God,” Sister Teresa responds. “It’s the handiwork of Satan. For some reason – for some inscrutable reason – God is allowing the Jewish people to bear Christ’s heavy Cross in this moment of history.”
At some point the train stops. Suddenly the doors are opened and a breeze of fresh air fills the compartment where Sister Teresa and her sister are trapped. At first, it is an unexpected relief – the stifling train is so full of people that it is difficult even to breathe – but soon they notice that the purpose of the stop is to cram even more people onto the train. Sister Teresa has lost her bearings, it has been several hours since they left the Netherlands, but she has no idea where they are. She doesn’t know how much time they have before they reach the horrors of Auschwitz.
A young woman enters the compartment, trying hard to carry three young children in her arms. She is alone, doesn’t seem to be with a husband, and her face is sweaty even as she enters the train. Like all of the other prisoners, like Sister Teresa herself, the woman has a yellow star of David sewn onto her chest. As she walks through the crowded, stench-filled compartment, she begins to beg in a muffled wail.
“Please,” she cries out at the others huddled in the train. “My babies need some food and more than that, something to drink. The Nazis have kept us locked up for hours, and I’m afraid my children might soon die.”
Most of the people avert their eyes when she crosses their path. Sister Teresa knows that most of them don’t have anything to share, and that those who do are unwilling to give up the little that they have.
As the young woman repeating her plea in a plaintive wail walks past Sister Teresa, the Carmelite nun turns to her sister.
“What do we have?” she asks Rosa. “Didn’t the nuns at the convent give us a small bag filled with food when the Gestapo arrived?”
“Only a loaf of bread, a little cheese, and a bottle of water.”
“Well, give it to her,” Sister Teresa commands.
“We’ll be left with nothing,” says Rosa. “Not even anything to drink. And who knows how many hours we’ll be on this train.”
“We’ll manage,” says Sister Teresa.
“If you say so, Yitschel.” Rosa is using the name she used to refer to Sister Teresa when they were both children.
“Thank you so much!” the woman with the three children says to Sister Teresa when she receives the food and the bottle of water. “The infant has a fever, and I don’t know what to do.”
“Oh, Lord!” cries out Sister Teresa when she puts the palm of her right hand on the child’s forehead. “The fever is very high. How long has she been in this condition?”
“For hours,” the woman replies. “The Nazis have taken over the Netherlands, and they have decided to punish the Catholic authorities of Holland for their protests against the violence visited upon the Jews. They’ve decided to imprison all the Jews who have converted to Christianity. And they’ve kept us locked up for hours.”
“So you’re a Catholic?” asks Sister Teresa.
“Yes,” says the woman. “But before I converted I was a Jew. And I am still a Jew. That is why they murdered my husband. That’s why they’ll probably kill me too.”
The heat inside the compartment is suffocating. There is no room to move. Some are praying, others are silently weeping, and Sister Teresa knows many have lapsed into despair and have renounced their God. As time passes, the little girl’s fever increases, and it is clear to all that the child will die.
“Is she baptized?” asks the nun.
“No, I haven’t had time. We’ve been in hiding.”
“Well, let’s do it right now,” says Sister Teresa. “In extreme conditions, the Church allows persons who are not priests to administer the sacrament.”
Soon after the baptism, the infant expires. Her mother is forced to carry the dead child in her arms throughout the rest of the journey.
“In a way, it’s a blessing,” says Sister Teresa. “She will be spared the torture of being gassed.”
Rosa listens to her sister and shivers, recognizing the prescience and gravity of her words.
* * *
When Edith told her mother she had converted to Catholicism, it was a bigger blow than when, at the age of fifteen, Edith had advised her that she would no longer pray to the Jewish God because she had become an atheist. But what stung the most was when Edith announced to her mother that she had decided to become a Carmelite nun in 1934. By then, the Nazi oppressor had begun to persecute the Jewish people, and Auguste Stein saw her daughter’s decision as a religious betrayal, a repudiation of her people, a brutal choice.
“How can you do such a thing, especially at this point, when the baptized Christians have begun to manifest their hatred for the sons of Jacob? Christianity is the religion of our persecutors. Haven’t they organized violent and bloody attacks against the Jews of Germany? Aren’t our businesses being closed or burnt down? Aren’t they discriminating against the Jews in a myriad of ways?”
“Those aren’t Christians,” Edith replied. “They are about as far from Christ as anyone could be.”
“Where did I go wrong?” her mother pleaded. “You were born on Yom Kippur, the greatest day of the Jewish calendar. And I taught you the psalms, took you to synagogue. Why oh why did you abandon the faith of your forebears? And now this decision!”
“That is something you don’t seem to understand. By becoming a Catholic, I did not forsake Judaism. The Cross and resurrection are the fulfillment of the Jewish faith. Jesus was a Jew, as was Saint Paul, as was Saint Peter. By joining the Carmelite order, I am simply following the path that God has traced for me, the same God of the Jewish people. Didn’t Jesus remind the crowds that the Father had said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?”
“You know nothing about God!” her mother spat out. “You have become deluded by the deceit of a false prophet, by your beloved Yoshke. And you are abandoning your Jewish brothers and sisters in their moment of greatest tribulation. I’m sure some are going to think that’s why you’ve decided to become a Catholic nun. They’ll say you’re doing it to escape the stigma of being a Jew in modern-day Germany. And maybe they would be right. Maybe you’re seeking to find safety in the cloister.”
“You don’t believe that,” Edith said. “I know you don’t.”
“To think that so many Jews have died to avoid the choice you’re making so easily!”
“It wasn’t an easy choice. I spent years searching. My longing for truth was a single prayer. I read all the philosophers, modern and ancient. Until I read the words of Saint Teresa of Avila and was suddenly converted.”
“I’ve never heard of the woman,” Auguste replied.
“She was a Spanish mystic, a descendant of Jews herself. I started reading her book, and I couldn’t put it down. I spent the whole night reading it. The truth is the Cross, and the Cross the truth. I was Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, blinded by the light of faith, by its bright shining dazzle. After I finished reading the work of Saint Teresa of Avila, I said to myself, ‘This is the truth!’”
“Well, if she was a descendant of Spanish Jews, I’m sure she was the granddaughter of those forcibly converted to Christianity on the pain of death. You are an apostate, there is no way to deny it, and for no good reason. Your decision makes you the very essence of treason and desertion from your persecuted people. In my eyes, you are dead. Dead. Do you understand it?”
And then the old woman started to cry, buried her face in Edith’s chest. After Edith left Breslau, she sent her mother letters every week, but Auguste never responded. Some three years later, Edith received news that the old woman had died, and Edith wept, wishing that her mother had accepted her existential choice or at a very minimum had attempted to understand it.
* * *
The afternoon on the train is much worse than the morning. Sister Teresa feels keenly that her faith is being tested, and she does not know whether she will survive the test. There are only five bucket latrines for more than a hundred people, and many have been forced to defecate on the ground in front of them, filling the compartment with a horrible stench that Sister Teresa can barely tolerate. Her sister Rosa has already vomited as a result. And everywhere there is the sound of children crying and women praying.
Sister Teresa has the sense that for some reason the women appear to be stronger in their faith. Most of the men, except a few, seem to be done with praying. Perhaps the women are closer to God, thinks Sister Teresa. And then there is the question of hunger and thirst, especially thirst. You can’t spend so many hours without any liquid, and a few old women have already died due to dehydration, since even on the days while they were locked up in the Westerbork Transit Camp before boarding the train, the passengers have been largely deprived of water. The view of the corpses scattered on the ground makes the experience all the more bleak, all the more surreal and dark. At times, the guards come to the wagon and take the cadavers away, and Sister Teresa wonders what they’ll do with them.
At some point a young boy – he must be no older than sixteen – enters the compartment with a large plastic bag full of bottles of water. Apparently the conductor of the train, an ordinary man complicit in a monstrous crime, perhaps unwittingly, has felt pity for them and has realized the extent of their suffering and thirst. The boy, dressed in a military uniform, shows both kindness and power in his white angular face – a rare kindness that shows he is conscious of the prisoners’ pain and at the same time a proud realization that he has the power to dispense death and life to the thirsty Juden. As soon as the people realize he is bringing water, they rush toward him. Many violently push away those in their way and some even resort to fisticuffs. Only the strongest seem to be rewarded, though the German boy tries hard to distribute water bottles to the women, especially those with children.
Sister Teresa admires the young boy – an Aryan, blonde-haired and blue-eyed – who is in an impossible situation. He must comply with the orders of his führer and yet somehow finds an opportunity to do good. The nun thinks the boy is blessed, has seen such kindness in other Germans, even in the worst of circumstances, and that renews her faith in the human spirit. This horror is the tunnel, she thinks, a long and dark tunnel, but this tunnel will someday end. The wholesale destruction of the Jews will not succeed. The Cross ended with the Resurrection.
At some point, Sister Teresa feels the urge to go to the bathroom, although of course that is only a metaphor. There are no bathrooms anywhere on the train, which had once been used to transport cattle. Sister Teresa manages to get a hold of one of the buckets – it is already half-filled with excrement – and tries to do her business as privately as possible. It is these small indignities that seem to be the most grating, for they confirm that the Nazis see the doomed Jews as little more than animals. For a nun used to covering her entire body, to the greatest modesty, it causes her a great embarrassment to have to lift her skirt and expose her inward parts to the crowds. She uses an old newspaper to wipe her buttocks swiftly and then hands the bucket to Rosa, who also needs to defecate. The foul odor of her own excrement stays with Sister Teresa, like a gross perfume that has seeped into her very person, a reminder of where she is and where she is heading. And she cannot help but see it as a symbol of the state of the souls of her persecutors.
During the afternoon, Sister Teresa does not rest or sleep. Indeed, it has been days since she has rested or had a full night’s sleep, since she was unable to do so when they were first incarcerated at the barracks of Westerbork before boarding the death train. Instead, she helps tend to the women with infants who desperately need a break from their children so they can lay down their heads on the train’s filthy floor, if only for an hour. Sister Teresa knows that the women have also not slept for days, since the beds in the barracks were made of iron frames without mattresses and the guards sadistically kept the lights on during the night. After she tends to the children throughout the day, her sister asks her why she doesn’t rest for a while, and Sister Teresa replies emphatically, quoting Saint Teresa of Avila, “Rest, indeed! I need no rest. What I need is crosses!”
“You need more crosses?” Rosa asks incredulously.
“Yes, I must bear them for my people.” And then Sister Teresa quotes her namesake once again. “Think of these women, the scant sleep they get, nothing but trials, nothing but crosses!” The truth is that by keeping herself busy, Sister Teresa tries to avoid a recurring thought: how could God be allowing this to happen to His chosen people?
Suddenly, as Sister Teresa and her sister are speaking, something happens that remains on the nun’s mind throughout the rest of their journey to Auschwitz. A young Jew, swarthy and sweaty, pulls a pack of cigarettes from the left pocket of his shirt. As he does so, another Jew approaches, dressed in the garb of the Hasidim, a black suit and a black hat above his head, with a full beard and long sidelocks, and asks for a cigarette. The other man refuses, tells him this is all he has for the trip, and suddenly the Hasidic Jew violently rips the pack of cigarettes from the other man’s hands and extracts a cigarette from the pack.
Before he has a chance to light it, the other man punches him straight in the jaw with a fierce fury, extracting the blood of the Hasidic man, who falls upon the ground and then rises to lunge at the other Jew. Then they are both on the ground exchanging blows as if they detested each other with a limitless passion. One plunges his nails into the eyes of the other, the other responds by using his head as a weapon against his rival’s face. They seem possessed by a primal anger, a bottomless hatred that knows no bounds. They are both Jews, both destined for the same death camp, and yet they hit each other as if they were pummeling the monstrous Aryan who has brought them together in this train full of doom.
Two Nazi guards suddenly appear with billy clubs and administer equal justice, beating the two men mercilessly and hitting one of the Jews so hard on the head that he collapses on the floor and dies. When Sister Teresa sees the wife of the dead Hasidic man caressing him on her lap, his bearded face bloodied and swollen, his arms listless at each side, she thinks of the image of La Pieta, the Virgin Mary with her dead Jewish son cradled in her arms.
* * *
When Kristallnacht happened, the nuns at the Carmelite convent in Cologne, Germany became extremely worried about Sister Teresa’s safety. The persecution of the Jews was no longer merely theoretical or abstract, no longer just economic or political. It became increasingly clear that Adolf Hitler and his acolytes meant to hunt down the Jewish people. Kristallnacht was a tipping point in the life of Sister Teresa and in the history of the Jews of Europe. Like with all tipping points, the before and the after were violently riven asunder in a single moment. Before that night, it was still possible for folks to think they could be both Germans and Jewish at once. After Kristallnacht, it was out of the question. The Kristallacht – the night of shattered glass – was brutal and conclusive: the Jews were the hated “other,” and they could do nothing about it except perhaps to groan like the prophet Jeremiah had done because of the destruction of Israel and the holy temple. “Woe is me!” Jeremiah had said. “For the Lord has added sorrow to my pain. I am weary with my groaning, and I find no rest.”
Sister Teresa had heard the grim news. Overnight, thousands of Jewish businesses had been destroyed, homes burnt down, temples desecrated. Many Jews had immediately escaped with whatever they could take, and more than a few had ended their own lives in a moment of despair. Thousands upon thousands had been thrown into trains of doom, destined for faraway concentration camps where the worst of fates awaited them. The German people – heirs to Beethoven, Bach, and Goethe – had become a pack of dogs, thirsty for Jewish blood, hungry for Jewish treasure.
Sister Teresa prayed for all of them, Jews as well as Germans, for she was a German and a Jew, and she understood that the Germans were in the greatest need of prayer. Not the Jewish sacrificial lambs who would ultimately find their peace in God but the ravenous German wolf who was unwittingly destroying his own soul. And the worst of all, thought Sister Teresa, is that Hitler and the Nazis were making millions of ordinary Germans complicit in the hatred, the devastation, the holocaust. God have mercy on their souls, she prayed, for they do not know what they are doing.
Mother Superior Agnes of the Trinity told her she had to leave, since all the Jews in Germany were in danger. There was a Carmelite convent in Echt, Holland, which would accept her as one of their own. And wearing the Carmelite habit, the guards at the border would not suspect she was a Jew, especially in the dark of night when they could not distinguish her Jewish features.
But Sister Teresa balked at the idea. She felt it was her duty to remain with her Jewish brethren and to actively resist the German onslaught. Perhaps as a Catholic religious who understood the Cross, it was her burden to bear the Cross on behalf of others. And she was repulsed by the idea that her nun’s attire – symbol of her Catholic faith – would allow her to flee when other Jews could not. What if her mother had been right? What if by taking the vows of a discalced Carmelite she had abandoned the Jews in their worst moment?
“No,” she told her Mother Superior. “I think it is my duty to stay in Germany, come what may, to suffer as a Jew if I must.”
“I think you’re forgetting something,” the older woman replied. “You have made a vow of obedience, and I have decided that you must leave. God does not require you to consent to evil. You have no obligation to die in a concentration camp.”
“Perhaps,” Sister Teresa objected, “if I were in a camp with my brothers and sisters, I could help them climb the ladder of the Cross. Show them how to do it. I could teach them that there is always a way out of the horror through a total surrender to the will of Christ.”
“What you must do now is pray,” Mother Superior Agnes responded.
“I do so constantly,” Sister Teresa answered. “I was born on the Jewish Day of Atonement. I have pleaded with the Lord to take me in sacrifice, to atone for the crimes of the Germans and the doubts of my own people. To take up the Cross of Christ in the name of all. To put an end to the hatred and the radical sin of disbelief wherever it is found. I would like my request to be granted this very day because I’m afraid the twelfth hour has arrived.”
“You must continue to pray. The Lord answers prayers in unexpected ways. And you must also write. God has given you a great gift which you must use to glorify Him. Have you made much progress with The Science of the Cross?”
“Not much. I have just begun to write it.”
“Well, don’t you think that is what the world needs at this moment? I am not a learned woman, certainly not as learned as you. But I know enough to understand the word ‘science’ comes from the Latin verb ‘to know.’ Don’t you think you would be serving the Lord more by helping people know the Cross than by languishing in a concentration camp?”
“It is true that few understand the meaning of the Cross,” Sister Teresa answered. “I find that even many Catholics have no idea what it means. To take up one’s Cross means actively to enter into the dark night of the soul. And it is so essential to embrace the Cross today. I fear that the events of last night are only the beginning, that much worse is in store for the Jewish people, perhaps for the world itself.”
“You must go to the Netherlands,” Mother Agnes stated emphatically. “And do so immediately. I have the sense that God still isn’t done with using you to help humanity bear the Cross that it will have to bear in the coming years.”
Read the second half of this story here.
Sandro Francisco Piedrahita is an American Catholic writer of Peruvian and Ecuadorian descent. Before he turned to writing, he practised law for a number of years. He is Jesuit-educated, and many of his stories have to do with the lives of saints, told through a modern lens. His wife Rosa is a schoolteacher, his son Joaquin teaches English in China and his daughter Sofia is a social worker. For many years, he was an agnostic, but he has returned to the faith. Mr. Piedrahita holds a degree in Comparative Literature from Yale College and a law degree from Harvard Law School.
Sandro's other work on Foreshadow:
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (Part 1 of 2; Fiction, August 2022)
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (Part 2 of 2; Fiction, August 2022)
A World for Abimael Jones (Part 1 of 2); Fiction, March 2023)
A World for Abimael Jones (Part 2 of 2); Fiction, March 2023)