Day 6 – Wednesday, August 5th to August 6th, 1942
At the Westerbork assembly camp
The camp consisted of thousands and thousands of huts surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence, with many watchtowers manned by gendarmes with machine-guns and searchlights, to thwart any attempt at escape. In it were assembled at the time one thousand two hundred Hebrew Catholics, amongst whom were a dozen or so religious. These were still dressed in their religious habits, on which was sewn a yellow star-shaped patch, sign of their infamy in the eyes of the Nazis. Saint Edith encountered acquaintances and even members of her family in the camp.
The prisoners were looked after by a Jewish Council which showed particular kindness to the Hebrew Catholics, of which assistance the latter were quickly deprived when the Camp Commandant ordered them to be isolated from the others.
The morning began with a quick medical examination, after which a woman orderly led the religious to their barracks, a dirty hut full of mud. The Sisters washed at a little basin. They recited their morning prayers, followed by meditation, while their guards marched up and down outside their enclosure. The two Carmelites recited the full Office, while the others recited the Little Office of Our Lady, as they were accustomed to do.
At 7 a.m. there was a break, during which they were allowed to perambulate inside their enclosure for a while. After breakfast, they could obtain coffee in the kitchen. They were then instructed to clean their quarters.
At midday, the prisoners were stripped of their valuables, gold, silver, money, down to the smallest change, and were led to a huge wooden building to have their particulars registered. For the next four hours they filed through the building from table to table filling in forms about their personal effects and circumstances. Incidentally, there was in the same building a kitchen, used on occasion for concerts. After the registration was completed, each was photographed seated on a stool holding a slate in one hand on which his or her prison-number had been chalked. The sentiment of being in prison became overpowering at that moment.
Meals consisted of potatoes and carrots, invariably. The Sisters were allowed to distribute their ration from a tureen brought into their barracks; the others had to line up at the kitchen.
The men were then finally separated from the women. Sister Judith Mendez da Costa, a Dominican, whose family, of Portuguese origin, had settled in Holland centuries before, was calm enough to remark, in a letter she wrote to her Superior from the camp, that the weather was beautiful.
August 5th – August 7th
In the Westerbork Assembly Camp
We are fortunate to have several testimonies to the bearing of Saint Edith during her sojourn at the Westerbork camp.
Before leaving Westerbork, Saint Edith managed to send off two notes to her Prioress, written with a pencil on two sheets of paper torn out of a writing pad. In the first note, there is a sentence which reflects her inner attitude during the ordeal:
“One can only learn a Scientia Crucis, if one feels the Cross in one’s own person. I was convinced of this from the first and have said with all my heart: Ave Crux, spes unica” (Hail, O Cross, our only hope).
Mrs. Bromberg, who together with her family, all Hebrew Catholics, accompanied Edith from Amersfoort to Westerbork, where she was in close contact with the Carmelite nun. As we noted, the family survived the war and Mrs. Bromberg gave the following testimony, which was written down by her son, Fr. Ignatius Bromberg, O.P.:
“The great difference between Edith Stein and the other Sisters lay in her silence. My personal impression is that she was deeply sorrowful, but without anxiety. I cannot express myself better than by saying that she gave the impression of bearing such an enormous load of sorrow that even when she did smile, it only made her look more sorrowful. She hardly ever spoke, but she often looked at her sister, Rosa, with indescribable sorrow. She was thinking of the suffering she foresaw awaited others, not of her own. Her whole appearance, as I picture her in my memory sitting in that hut, suggested only one thought to me, a Pietà without Christ, a Rachel weeping for her children.”
The next equally striking testimony comes from a Jewish businessman from Cologne, Julius Markan, who had been put in charge of the prisoners at Westerbork Camp and, along with his wife, was spared deportation. He wrote:
“Amongst the prisoners who were brought in on the 5th of August, Sister Benedicta stood out on account of her calmness and composure. The distress in the barracks and the stir caused by the new arrivals were indescribable. Sister Benedicta was just like an angel, going around amongst the women, comforting them, helping them and calming them. Many of the mothers were near to distraction; they had not bothered about their children the whole day long, but just sat brooding in dumb despair. Sister Benedicta took care of the little children, washed them and combed them, attending to their feeding and other needs. During the whole of her stay there, she washed and cleaned for people, following one act of charity with another, until everyone wondered at her goodness.”
Our Saint spent as much time as she could in prayer, never complaining, neither about the food nor about the behavior of the soldiers. Everyone, Rosa the first, benefited from her uplifting example.
Dr. Wielek, employed in office work at the Westerbork camp when the transport carrying Edith and her sister Rosa arrived there, was questioned in the course of the diocesan canonical process. He rendered the following testimony to her bearing during her stay in the camp:
“She went about, talking, praying, like a saint. In one conversation she said to me: ‘The world is made up of opposites, but in the end nothing remains of these contrasts. What only remains is great love. How is it possible for it to be otherwise?’ She spoke with such security and humility as to conquer all her listeners. A conversation with her was a voyage to another world. In those moments, Westerbork ceased to exist. By now there was no doubt that she and the other baptized (Jews) would be deported elsewhere in a few hours time. I asked her whom she wanted me to inform about what was happening and whether I could do anything to help her. She replied asking why should an exception be made for her or her group? It was only just that the fact of being baptized should not bring her any privilege. Her life would be ruined if she could not participate in the fate of the others.”
“So also the chief priests, with the scribes and the elders mocked him saying, ‘He saved others, he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross and we will believe in him. He trusts in God, let God deliver him now, if he desires him.’” Matthew 27:41-42
“And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.” Mark 15:33
“Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and after examining him I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him, neither did Herod for he sent him back to us. Behold, nothing deserving death has been done by him.’” Luke 23:13-15
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be
(Any suitable prayer may be said here)
Saint Edith, Pray For Us!