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Open letter to John Paul: Speak the whole truth about Christians and the Holocaust

On Oct. 11, four members of Edith Stein’s family -- Michael and Debra Biberstein, now living in San Diego, and Ernst and Hannah Biberstein, now of Davis, Calif., -- were in Rome for the canonization ceremony of their aunt, now St. Teresa Benedicta. The following is an open letter to Pope John Paul II written in advance of their trip.

To His Holiness Pope John Paul II:

We write to you as four members of the family of St. Teresa Benedicta. Your admirable and forthright stand for Christian-Jewish understanding has encouraged us to share with you some thoughts and concerns that are prompted by this occasion.

Edith was one of seven children. Four of the seven, including Edith, were murdered in the Holocaust. For us, our October visit will be both a celebration of Edith’s life and a painful remembrance. We continue to honor Edith as a distinguished scholar and as a loving aunt of the individuals you will receive at the audience you have granted us. We also honor Edith for the considerable efforts she made on behalf of the Jewish people, despite her abandonment of the Jewish faith. We refer here to her book, Life in a Jewish Family, which was intended to counter the demonizing anti-Semitic propaganda of the day. We refer also to her letter written in 1933 to Pope Pius XI asking for a private audience to discuss her idea for a papal encyclical against Nazi anti-Semitism. As you are aware, the audience was not granted and the encyclical was not issued.

We hope to present to you, on the occasion of our audience, a drawing of a memory still clear in the minds of the surviving nephews and nieces of Edith Stein: the Neue Synagogue of Breslau. This synagogue was the center of religious life for the Stein family and the site of important events, including B’nai Mitzvah of family members and of the artist Peter Loeser, who is a close friend of our family and a Holocaust survivor. The synagogue was destroyed in November 1938 during the night of organized violence against Jews known as Kristallnacht. The memory of the synagogue lives on with us, and the image Loeser created recalls to us the richness of the social, religious and cultural life that was enjoyed by the Stein family prior to the Nazi persecutions. It also brings to our minds the memory of those lost to our family during the Holocaust -- not just Edith, whose circumstances are highly publicized, but also Rosa, Frieda and Paul, three of Edith’s siblings, and Eva, her niece, whose loss is no less painful to us.

The caption we chose for the drawing is an excerpt from an essay written by Edith Stein entitled “How I Came to the Cologne Carmel” and constitutes her account of her earlier plea to Pope Pius XI on behalf of the Jewish people. Her disappointment with his response is evident from the text. We share her disappointment. She goes on to imagine him later asking himself whether he made the right decision. The same question continues to haunt us. Had Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical requested of him by St. Teresa Benedicta, how many more Christians might have been inspired to help their Jewish neighbors? Guided by such an encyclical, how many more Christians might have refused to take part in the denunciation, arrest, deportation and murder of Jews? Had the Catholic church, from the beginning, put the full weight of its influence against the venomous Nazi racism as Edith Stein suggested, could anything approaching the magnitude of the Holocaust have been possible?

The German and French Catholic bishops’ acknowledgment of and apology for the moral failures of their churches gave us hope for a similar declaration from you. The Vatican’s recent statement We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah was a disappointment to us. In particular, the claim that “many” Christians gave “every possible assistance” presents a misleading picture since it fails to add that these “many” Christians constituted a tiny, hardly noticeable fraction of a huge hostile or inert whole. When asked what help you gave to Jews during the Shoah, your reported answer was: “I cannot lay claim to what I did not do.” The vast majority of Christians did no more.

The document ignores the failure of the Catholic leadership to provide clear moral guidance, which it sees as its function, and which the millions of its faithful expect. This function is difficult to reconcile with the quoted reply of Pius XII to the question whether he would protest the extermination of the Jews: “Dear friend, do not forget that millions of Catholics serve in the German armies. Shall I bring them into conflict with their conscience?” Nor does the document acknowledge adequately the fanning of virulent anti-Semitic hatred by Catholic leaders like Archbishop August Hlond, the primate of the Polish Catholic church, who stated in 1936, “There will be a Jewish problem as long as the Jews remain. ... It is a fact that the Jews are fighting against the Catholic church ... and are the vanguard of godlessness, Bolshevisim, and subversion. ... It is a fact that the Jews deceive, levy interest and are pimps.” You have given us reason to expect a more thorough, judicious self-examination concerning the church’s acquiescence and complicity in the extermination of European Jewry.

Your good will toward the Jewish people is by now a matter of a long and distinguished record. You have branded anti-Semitism a sin. On the occasion of your celebrated visit to the synagogue of Rome, you called Judaism the “elder brother” of Christianity. You have established diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the state of Israel. You have changed the climate from one of residual fear, suspicion and confrontation to one inviting mutual acceptance and fruitful interaction. Your desire for full reconciliation between our two faiths is beyond question. Unambiguous acknowledgment of the whole truth would greatly advance the cause of such reconciliation.

We look forward to our audience with you. May the work of the artist serve as a reminder of the past still waiting to be fully acknowledged, and may the words of the saint, who proclaimed her life to be one search for truth, be an inspiration toward renewed efforts to teach truth and tolerance.

National Catholic Reporter, October 23, 1998