The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: July 2, 2004
Navigating the minefield of Edith Stein's life
A new Catholic theater company promotes dialogue between Christians and Jews
By MARGOT PATTERSON
For producers Robin Crotty and Michael Ty, the knotty issues in the play Edith Stein offered just the challenge they were looking for.
In 2002 Crotty and Ty established Fiat Productions, Ltd., in Lincoln, Neb. Described as the first Catholic theater company west of the Mississippi, part of Fiats ambitious agenda is to produce plays with academic and moral content that will spur dialogue between faiths, traditions and cultures.
This past spring the theater company staged Edith Stein in Boston. Written by Arthur Giron, the play dramatizes Edith Steins life and the tensions between Christians and Jews that have developed over a woman who encompassed both a Jewish and Christian identity.
In this performance the dialogue has translated not only into interfaith dialogue, but difficult interfaith dialogue. Were not just bringing representatives of different faiths into a room together but were raising very difficult questions in an environment of tolerance and respect, said Ty, an intern at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and Crottys collaborator and, since May, husband.
Often people in interfaith dialogue think its important to share what they believe in, Ty said. Thats important too, but theres an opportunity to share that Im really angry that my daughter married a Muslim. Or where is the role of suffering in the history of humanity and where do you see your religion fitting into it?
Since her death, Edith Stein, a German feminist, philosopher, writer, teacher and nun, has become an almost iconic figure. When she took her final vows as a Carmelite in 1938, Stein, who would henceforth be known as Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, printed on her devotional picture a quote from St. John of the Cross: Henceforth, my only vocation is to love.
Its ironic then that Stein, a student of phenomenologist Edmund Husserl who wrote her philosophical dissertation on The Problem of Empathy, has become such a flashpoint for conflict between Catholics and Jews. A Jewish convert to Catholicism who was killed at Auschwitz in 1942 because of her Jewish origins, Stein saw herself as an intercessor in prayer for others and particularly for the Jewish people during the dark years of the Nazi era. She never disowned her Jewishness and, reflecting on the role of Esther in saving her people from destruction by King Ahasuerus, wrote of herself in 1938: I keep thinking of Queen Esther who was taken away from her people precisely because God wanted her to plead with the king on behalf of her nation. I am a very poor and powerless little Esther, but the King who has chosen me is infinitely great and merciful.
When Pope John Paul II beatified Sr. Teresa Benedicta in 1987, he called her a daughter of Israel who during the Nazi persecution remained united, as a Catholic, in fidelity and love to the crucified Lord Jesus, and, as a Jew, to her people.
Jewish groups protested the beatification and subsequent canonization, seeing in it an attempt by the Vatican to lay claim to the Holocaust and turn a Jewish victim into a Catholic martyr. The establishment of a Carmelite convent outside the gates of Auschwitz named after Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross fueled further outrage. The name was changed and the convent subsequently moved because of Jewish protests.
Its this complicated and conflicted history of Edith Steins life and legacy that Arthur Girons play Edith Stein boldly addresses.
From the moment the play begins, the Jewish-Christian fault lines appear in clear relief. It is 1987, and the character of Dr. Weissman, a representative of the International Holocaust Convention, appears on stage to remonstrate with the prioress of the convent that has been erected outside Auschwitz. You appropriate the Holocaust as your own, he says. Your convent must be closed. Her name must be removed from the community.
The next scene introduces Edith Stein and her mother, a faithful Jew who blames herself for the fact that Edith and her other children are agnostics and atheists. The play traces the growing strain between Stein and her mother, who was never reconciled to her daughters conversion to Catholicism, and the darkening shadow cast by the Nazi regime, which would ultimately kill Stein and millions of others.
Two interfaith panels held on successive weekends after the Sunday matinee performances of Edith Stein discussed issues raised by the play. An accompanying art exhibit by a German artist, Brigitte Keller, in a room adjacent to the theater memorialized those killed in the Holocaust.
Crotty said she was drawn to produce Edith Stein because of its powerful depiction of Steins complex identity and because of her own interest in Stein.
I was searching for a play that had these different levels of complexity and character development, and I had a very personal interest in Edith Stein as a female intellectual and as a woman of faith and sanctity, said the 25-year-old Crotty, who acted in the play as well as producing it.
Edith Stein opened in Boston just a day after Mel Gibsons movie The Passion of the Christ had premiered in movie theatres across America, a coincidence that was not lost on either the cast or the audience.
Edith Stein is a nexus of terrible conflict between Christians and Jews, said Chester Parasco, a psychiatric counselor at McLean Hospital who is pursuing a degree at Weston Jesuit School of Theology and who attended the play. We dont really understand in this society the Jewish-Christian thing. We dont really talk to one another yet. Its much too difficult. It takes an enormous amount of work.
Crotty said, This play brings to life those same questions that the media have jumped all over The Passion about. Dr. Wiessman asks, is this about converting the Jews? Thats not what Mel Gibson is trying to do. Thats not what were trying to do. Were telling the story of a terribly brilliant woman, and her life is an inspiration.
One apprehension Crotty and Ty faced in putting on Edith Stein was whether they would satisfactorily demonstrate the appropriate level of respect for Judaism and its history, faith and culture. Another was whether many people would be interested in a theologically oriented play or a play with theological and philosophical content.
With Catholics, Protestants and Jews all involved in the production, the play became an extended interfaith exercise. At one point, the cast traveled to a traditional Carmelite monastery in Danvers, Mass., to see what life in a cloistered Carmelite monastery was like. At another point, Ellen Lokos, the actress who played Edith Stein and a practicing Jew, came to Crotty to discuss what it meant as a Christian to embrace the cross. In the course of rehearsals, the question arose not only of what it means to be a Christian but also what it means to be a Jew.
In the interfaith panel discussion held after the matinee, Lokos said she felt compelled by the role of Edith Stein. A professor at Harvard who left academia to be an actress, Lokos had taught Spanish literature, including the works of Teresa of Avila, whose autobiography The Interior Castle was crucial in Steins conversion to Catholicism.
When I saw the notice for this audition, I just knew I had to do the role, Lokos said. Im a Jewish woman married to a German man. I came from a family of Holocaust survivors. My husband was born right after the war. He carried a lot of guilt about the war, even though he hadnt been born. Edith challenges me, fascinates me. I taught the book that inspired her conversion. I gave up an intellectual career for many reasons. I understand the move from intellect to spirit.
The interfaith panel convened to discuss the issues raised by the play included Lokos; Holocaust survivor Carola Domar; Zella Brown, the daughter of Holocaust survivors; and Marga Dieter, a German woman who along with Brown is active in One by One, a nonprofit group that brings together in dialogue descendants of survivors of the Holocaust and descendants of its perpetrators.
The discussion ranged from the fear, ignorance and suspicion Christians and Jews sometimes have of each other, to the personal experiences of Holocaust survivors and their descendents, to the guilt felt by many Germans over the Holocaust regardless of whether they were born when it occurred.
Born in a displaced persons camp after World War II, Zella Brown spoke of the suffering Christianity had caused Jews for 2,000 years and her own experience growing up in a household where Christianity went unmentioned.
I grew up with that word [Jesus] being a poisonous word. There was always the sense of forbiddenness. I felt guilty for being curious.
As I got older, I was troubled by the toxin that got into me, that tempted me to say to my grandchildren 60 years later, Dont you ever go to Germany.
Brown said she had been fortunate to take part in One by One, which has gone on to work with other polarized groups in addition to those affected by the Holocaust.
I found a lot of good Germans in that group and I began to fall in love with them. And I wondered if there was something wrong with me, Brown said.
Dieter, from Worms, Germany, where a large Jewish population existed before the war, has been active in trying to reintroduce Jewish culture to Worms. Like other panelists, she described a turbulent childhood, meeting her father for the first time at the age of 9. He was a soldier in the German army who was captured by the United States and became a prisoner of war in this country. Dieter grew up on her grandparents farm. They were members of the Nazi Party; her mother was not, and there was great conflict between them, she told the audience. At one point, her brother denounced their mother to the Gestapo when she opposed her sons desire to join the Young Hitler movement.
Dieter recalled her first trip to America as a young woman in 1961. She was invited to dinner where another guest, hearing she was German, abruptly left the party, asking how could his host invite a German to be at the same dinner with him. Even today, young Germans feel ashamed of their nationality because of the Holocaust, Dieter said.
Carola Domar spoke out vigorously against this. I feel its up to my generation to deal with the guilt. I have disputes with younger people and tell them its not their fault.
I have some very good friends who were Nazis. Of course we acknowledge they are not the same people now that they were, Domar said.
The panelists addressed the challenges of reconciliation. Domar, who knew Edith Steins nephew Wolfgang in Germany and was a classmate of Wolfgangs wife, mentioned the betrayal Steins family felt at her conversion. None of the family attended her canonization, she said. [Readers have informed NCR that some members of Edith Stein's family did attend her canonization in Rome in 1998, including her niece, Susanne Batzdorff, who has written about Sr. Benedicta.]
The panelists spoke of the intense experience even their limited participation in Edith Stein had provoked. A subsequent interfaith panel included a professor in theological ethics at Boston College and Rabbi Terry Bard, an authority on religious conversion and its psychological effects on families.
Crotty and Michael Ty, who met in Rome as graduate students at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, said they took as their challenge the popes apostolic letter to artists in 1998 in which he appealed to them to use their talents in the service of God. A mission statement of Fiat Productions Ltd., lists the theater companys desire to contribute to a renaissance of Catholic art and to spread the Gospel and the message of the saints to all members of society in healing dialogue.
Crotty said her ambition was to merge her interest in Christian theology with her passion for theater.
So often theater is morally compromised. I wanted something where I could teach the message of Christ and be an inspiration, said Crotty.
Crotty said she hopes to establish several different sister locations of Fiat Productions so that in the future there might be an international network of Catholic theater companies.
Weve always chosen plays that can stand alone, she said. Then we move on to the other values. How is it theologically? How is it spiritually?
Crotty and Ty secured an apostolic blessing from the Holy See for their play and put their own money into producing it, taking out a $15,000 loan. An invitation from the Center for Christian Jewish Understanding in Connecticut to perform Edith Stein is under advisement for the fall.
Margot Patterson is an NCR writer and editor. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 2004 [corrected 11/12/2004]
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