A Jew and Her Cross (Part 2 of 2)
By Sandro F. Piedrahita
Based on the life of Edith Stein, a German Jewish philosopher and Christian nun martyred in an Auschwitz gas chamber. Read the first part of this story here.
At some point – Sister Teresa has lost track of the hours – the guards announce that all the passengers will be moved to another train once they reach the city of Breslau, the town where Sister Teresa was born, the town where she went to synagogue with her mother so many years earlier. By then, a group of around sixty Catholic Jews is congregated around her, listening to her speak and joining her in prayer to Our Lady of Sorrows. It seems that all the Catholic Jews of Holland are being deported to Auschwitz, probably more than a thousand. And Sister Teresa thanks her God because He has allowed her to speak to the people in simple terms which they can understand and which somehow make their journey less fraught.
She thinks it is analogous to the gift given to Saint Peter and the other apostles on Pentecost, when they were blessed with the ability to speak in tongues. Sister Teresa, the brilliant phenomenologist who has penned complicated philosophical works like Philosophy and Psychology of the Humanities and Finite and Eternal Being, can suddenly explain deep truths about the Faith in words comprehensible even to a child. She reassures them that there is meaning in life, that they are not hopeless, that the Christ is with them always. And in so doing – in preaching hope – she is dissipating her own doubts. She is strengthening herself as much as those around her.
“Do not be afraid, little flock,” she tells them, “for it is God’s pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”
“Thank you, rebbe,” one of the passengers tells her, probably a Yiddish-speaking German like herself, “for I was on the verge of despair, and you’ve lifted me with your words.”
When they arrive at the railroad depot in Breslau, Sister Teresa is filled with ancient memories: the sound of her mother repeating the psalms in her earnest voice at night, playing hide-and-go-seek with her sisters on days off from school, the scent of the mulberry trees in spring. It was a different world, a world now irrevocably gone. Nothing could be more different from the Breslau of her childhood than the Breslau of the present day – the train station where anxious crowds wonder where they will be taken next, the dust-covered children on the verge of being starved, the gaunt faces of old women and young men sharing the same deep, primal and existential fear.
And yet Sister Teresa feels an odd delight in being back in Breslau. She is home again, if only for an instant. She is no longer locked up on the train. She can feel the lambent sunlight upon her cheeks and the soft wind that somehow startles her because after so many hours in a stifling train, the breeze has become something strange and unexpected.
Then Johannes recognizes her, after all these years, even though she is wearing the habit of a Carmelite. He is a man in his sixties, rotund and obese, dressed in an orange uniform. Sister Teresa assumes he works sweeping the train depot and wonders if that, too, somehow involves him in the great sin committed there.
“Edith!” he cries out. “It must be more than twenty-five years since I last saw you. And you’re a nun! I thought you were Jewish.”
“I am,” responds Sister Teresa. “But I’m also a professed Catholic nun. I don’t see a contradiction.”
“What brings you here? As far as I know, your sisters have left for America. And your mother passed away years ago.”
“I’m going East. I’m on my route to death. The train I’ll board will take me to Auschwitz.”
“Oh, you’re on one of those trains, huh? I try not to think about it when I see all the folks heading to the camps.”
“Try to get another job,” counsels Sister Teresa. “You should do nothing – nothing – to allow others to perpetrate such a crime. Not even sweep the floors for them.”
“Listen,” says Johannes. “I think I may be able to help you. There’s a tool shed some sixty feet away where I keep my brooms and other items. You can hide there, and in the night, I can take you to my home. Nobody will suspect it.”
“I don’t know,” responds Sister Teresa, suddenly pensive. “What if the guards catch you?”
“I’ll smite them with all my fury. I keep a gun in my tool shed. There aren’t that many Nazi guards.”
“That wouldn’t be right. Jesus didn’t allow Peter to kill the men who were about to apprehend Him. And my people need me to be with them. To take them by the hand on this horrible journey.”
“So you’d rather die?”
“I’d rather live. Life is such a precious gift. But I can’t leave those souls alone. I shall be with them as they walk into the gas chambers. Otherwise they might despair and not carry their Cross as willingly as they should.”
“Let me at least give you a little food for your journey.”
“No, thank you. We accept nothing.”
And then the nun bids Johannes adieu and, after finding her sister, boards the train that is to take them on their final leg to Auschwitz.
* * *
The Gestapo men who arrived at the Carmelite convent in Echt on a Sunday morning in August 1942 were exceedingly polite and professional in their demeanor. They did not come with guns drawn or break down the door. When Mother Superior Carmen responded to their knocks, they informed her in a cool voice that they were there to apprehend two Jews, Edith and Rosa Stein, who were hiding with the nuns.
“Why do you want to arrest them?” the nun asked. “They are both devout Christians.”
“If your bishops hadn’t meddled, this wouldn’t be necessary,” one of the Germans responded. “But a couple of weeks ago, all your priests preached from their pulpits at all their Masses that the Nazi treatment of the Jews was immoral and ungodly. So the order has been given. All the Jewish converts must be taken to the camps, especially the religious.”
“Well, I won’t allow it. This is a house of God. I demand that you immediately depart.”
“You don’t seem to understand,” one of the Gestapo officers replied. He spoke in a serene voice, not animated, knowing he was in a position of power. “The Third Reich does not respect nunneries.”
“Tell us where they are,” the other officer commanded, speaking in a louder voice. “Otherwise we’ll just arrest each and every one of you. God knows the concentration camps are full of recalcitrant priests and nuns. We’ll take you, too, if you want to join your Jewish sisters.”
“They’re in the chapel,” Mother Carmen responded in a tremulous voice. “You’ll find them praying.”
The Gestapo men entered the chapel and found Sister Teresa and Rosa kneeling in front of a great crucifix. Sister Teresa was particularly drawn to the representation of Christ on that crucifix: a masculine Christ, a manly Christ, well-muscled and heavily bearded, with a square jaw, thick eyebrows and a sharp nose, not a lovely, quasi-feminine Jesus as in so many other depictions.
And Christ was clearly suffering on that crucifix in the convent at Echt. You could see the pain etched on his face, how the thorns punctured his forehead, how his body was bloodied, spent and tyrannized. Sister Teresa felt that crucifixes should make manifest the horror of the Passion, its sheer brutality, to remind the onlookers of the monstrous agony the Christ was willing to endure for the sake of sinners. As her namesake Saint Teresa of Avila said, there is no affliction too difficult to endure when we consider the torments suffered by the Christ on His Cross at Calvary. Sister Teresa had long understood that contemplating the Cross is not for the faint of heart. And she would soon learn how unfathomably painful it is to be crucified on that Cross.
The two Gestapo officers violently interrupted the prayers of the two women. One of the men took a hold of Sister Teresa by the shoulders as she was kneeling and asked her point-blank, “Are you Edith Stein, the converted Jew?”
“I am,” the nun answered. “And who are you?”
Without answering, the man pulled at her by the hair and threw her on the ground, where he proceeded to handcuff her.
“You dirty Jew!” he cried out as he kicked her in the stomach. “Soon you will learn you can’t hide by disguising yourself as a Christian.”
“You are the one who disguises himself as a Christian,” she retorted from the ground. “You are an enemy of the Cross. Praised be Jesus Christ!”
And then she looked at her sister Rosa, cringing in fear as the other officer approached her with a baton in his hand.
“Don’t attempt to resist him,” Sister Teresa said. “Come, Rosa, we are going to join our people.”
* * *
The train arrives at the outskirts of the Auschwitz concentration camp around ten o’clock in the evening, and soon the guards arrive to tell the passengers to disembark. Folks are wary and do not move quickly, afraid of what their new destination portends. Sister Teresa sees people lingering in the compartment, relatives looking at each other with anxious eyes, not knowing what to do. But soon the guards come with their billy clubs and tell the people to move along.
Sister Teresa and her sister take their single valise and begin to march with the rest of the crowd to the exit, shuffling along slowly, prodded forward like sheep by the Nazis wielding their batons. Outside there is already a throng, everyone looking at the ground and at the road before them, following orders like automatons. But Sister Teresa sees a young girl – she must not be older than seventeen – clinging to the door of one of the compartments, refusing to move. A young guard seems to be making a lackluster effort to force her to let go of the door, but there is no anger in his face, only something akin to confusion.
“I’m not a Jew!” she cries out. “I am not a convert! I was baptized as a child, and I have always been a Christian!”
The young guard pulls at her by the arms somewhat reluctantly, but she continues to resist.
“Come on,” he pleads. “Otherwise the others will come, and they’ll beat you. It’s only a short walk to the camp.”
“I don’t want to go!” she wails. “I am not a Jew! I hate the Jews!”
Then another guard approaches.
“What is going on?” he asks in a gruff voice.
The girls starts to bawl and repeat again and again: “I am not a Jew! I am not a Jew! I am not a Jew!”
Sister Teresa quickly moves ahead of the guard and puts her arms around her.
“Do not be afraid, child,” she says. “Come with me. We’ll walk together.”
“I know what they do to the Jews!” the girl cries out. “It’s not a secret. They beat them, and they kill them! I have heard that they are gassed to death.”
“Come,” the nun says gently, and she takes the girl by the hand. “What is your name?”
“My name is Anika.”
“That name means ‘grace,’” Sister Teresa responds. “Trust in God’s grace. Do you want to say a prayer with me?”
The girl, slowly starting to walk forward with the nun, says, “Yes.”
“Come, we’ll pray the Te Deum. O Lord, save thy people and bless thine heritage. Govern them and lift them up forever. Day by day we magnify Thee...”
And the girl continues. “O Lord, have Mercy upon us. O Lord, let Thy Mercy lighten upon us, as our trust is in Thee…”
They all walk to the valley of murder on a gravel road flanked on either side by trees until they reach the bunkers at the concentration camp. It is a long trail, and it takes the men and women more than two hours to arrive. More than five hundred are placed into what seems like a huge cottage or a large hall where they must stand because there simply isn’t enough space to sit or sleep. Not that many would be able to sleep, thinks Sister Teresa. The guards have announced that at six o’clock in the morning, they will be taken to showers where they will be “de-loused,” and many know exactly what that means.
Anika instinctively stays close to the fifty-year-old nun that has given her some semblance of hope. Sister Teresa gently caresses her and repeatedly tells her the words that Jesus had so often imparted to His followers and disciples in their moments of crisis and despair: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.
Anika clutches the nun’s hand and asks for reassurance. “Everything is going to be all right, isn’t it, Sister Teresa?”
“Yes,” answers the nun, as she presses the girl’s hand to give her comfort. Then Sister Teresa quotes the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah. “For the Lord has great plans for you. Plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”
“So I will not die tomorrow?” Anika asks.
“Perhaps that future promised to you by the Lord is in Heaven, my little girl. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will worry about itself. You only need to pray for strength.”
At six o’clock in the morning exactly, the Nazi guards appear and open the doors of the bunker, demanding that all the prisoners undress so they can be taken to the “showers.” Sister Teresa thinks it is one final indignity, completely unnecessary, but remembers that the Good Lord was nearly naked, too, when He was on His road to the Cross at Golgotha. The Jews obey the Nazis’ orders without objection or complaint, knowing that any protests would be useless, and they place their clothes on the ground as they begin to follow the guards. Sister Teresa, walking with Anika and Rosa arm-in-arm, heads to the front of the crowd and begins to sing ancient Jewish hymns. Those who follow her soon begin to do the same, and the guards are surprised by the loud, boisterous chants of the doomed Jews heading to their deaths.
As they enter the gas chamber, Sister Teresa looks at the frightened girl at her side and tells her in a triumphant voice, “I say to you today, Anika, you will be with me in Paradise.”
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)
A Jew and Her Cross (Part 1 of 2; Fiction, April 2023)
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