Day 9 – Sunday, August 9th, 1942
The Auschwitz Extermination Camp
Auschwitz was at that time a small provincial Polish town, which was to give its name to the notorious concentration camp, opened nearby by order of Himmler for political prisoners on April 27, 1940. The first camp was rather small in size and was called, subsequently, Auschwitz I. In October 1941, a far more extensive camp was set up, named after a neighboring village, Auschwitz II-Birkenau (Encyclopaedia Judaica Vol. 3, Coll. 854-871). From March 1942, Jews were directed to the second camp.
Mass murders of Jewish prisoners by Zyklon B (prussic acid) gas was instituted at Birkenau as from January 1942, at the instigation of Adolf Eichmann, who was in overall command of the execution of the “Final Solution” of the Jewish Problem by genocide, decided on by the Nazis at Wansee in 1941. The gassing continued for two years and ten months, during which time a million Jews perished in the camp.
The convoys arrived at the rate of three or four a day; they were usually met at the platform by the Camp Commandant, Rudolph Hoess, later executed for war-crimes, and the infamous Dr. Mengele, who performed the “Selektion”, strong prisoners being separated for forced labor in mines and factories, the remainder being consigned for immediate “elimination.”
The first transport of prisoners from Holland arrived in July 1942; the one carrying our Saint was, perhaps, the third, being preceded by a transport of men which had reached the camp that afternoon.
The newcomers were taken to barracks and told to leave their clothes on a numbered peg, to be retrieved after the shower, which they were falsely led to believe would follow. Women usually had their hair cut off. The prisoners had then to walk four hundred meters along a path till they came to a large room, with tubes running across the ceiling. Force was used to get them to enter, when necessary. The metal doors were locked, levers operated and the gas introduced into the rooms. Twenty to twenty-five minutes later, electric-pumps evacuated the gas, allowing special commando-units to enter and empty the chambers. Not all the victims were dead. Gold dentures were removed and the corpses carted away to be thrown into a common fosse. Crematoria had not yet been installed at Auschwitz; but, later, to obliterate traces of their crimes, the Nazis exhumed the corpses and had them burnt.
From the moment of the arrival of a convoy to the extermination of the victims, no more than an hour and a half would elapse, as a rule. The killing of human beings became a monotonous routine.
Saint Edith, her companions and a thousand other Hebrew Catholics died in the gas-chambers of Auschwitz II-Birkenau on the morning of August 9th from suffocation by prussic acid fumes. She then entered into her glory, accompanied, as we like to believe, by many others.
Some Hebrew Catholic Companions of Saint Edith in her Ordeal
Saint Edith Stein was accompanied by a group of Hebrew Catholics throughout her ordeal; they lived with her, prayed with her, shared her spiritual sentiments, and died, most of them, together with her in the same gas-chamber. They are the rays of light that scintillate around our Saint’s crown of glory. Divine Providence wanted to give the world an example of an ideal Hebrew Catholic Community, though one assembled under duress and for a short period only.
We recall a few names, those most closely associated with Saint Edith in her trial.
Rosa, Edith’s sister
She was the only member of the Stein family to follow Edith into the Church, delaying her entry until the death of her mother, so as to spare the latter the suffering her entry would have occasioned her. She became a Tertiary Carmelite and rendered service to the Nuns at Echt, from where she left with her sister, Edith, for Auschwitz.
Dr. Bromberg and his family
The Doctor, his wife, son and daughter travelled in the transport from Amersfoort to Westerbork. They survived the war, as by a miracle. Mrs. Bromberg, who was very close to Edith, left a fine testimony to her bearing during the two days Edith spent in the camp. The son was ordained a priest in the Dominican Order after the war: Fr. Ignatius Bromberg, O.P.
The Löb family
The father was a Dr. Löb; of his five children, two became Trappist priests, two Trappistines, and one, a Trappist lay-brother. The two priests deployed an admirable ministry amongst the prisoners, proving a benediction to them in their distress. All were to die with Edith and Rosa.
Sister Judith Mendez da Costa
Her family had left Portugal in the 16th century to settle in Amsterdam. She became a Dominican nun and was conventual in Bilthoven from where she was carried off by the Gestapo on August 2nd. Her distant Portuguese origin provided an excuse, so that she was set free for a while and returned to her convent on the 15th August. On the 25th February 1944, she and the entire Portuguese community were transferred from Westerbork to Theresienstadt camp and from there to Auschwitz (16th May) where they were all gassed. Her brother and sister died in the torment. Sister Judith managed to send to her Superior a detailed description of her stay in Westerbork, from August 4th to August 15th, during which time she met Saint Edith.
She entered the Church in 1932, Edith Stein standing as her godmother. Two years later she entered the Sisters of the Good Shepherd as a postulant. Circumstances in Germany being what they were at the time, she was sent to Holland. On account of her asthma, she was not accepted as a religious, but remained on as a lay-helper to the Sisters in several of their establishments. At 5 o’clock on the morning of August 2nd, she was snatched from her convent at Almelo by the Gestapo and sent to Amersfoort camp, from where she accompanied our Saint on the journey to Auschwitz.
Dr. Ruth Kantorowicz of the Ursuline Convent at Venlo
She had been an old friend of Edith’s. She was arrested on August 2nd and carried off to Amersfoort and then in a goods-train to Hooghalen. She was one of those who were forced to walk across fields, woods and hedges to the Westerbork camp. In answer to an urgent note, the Ursulines sent her supplies with two gentlemen. These saw her in the camp with Edith Stein, both wearing the yellow star-shaped patch. She remarked that the Trappist priests had not been able to celebrate Holy Mass for them. She left with Edith for Auschwitz.
Since 1940, she had been resident in the lodge of the Trappistine Abbey near Tilburg. She was a medical doctor of Polish-Jewish origin, acquainted with our Saint with whom she had exchanged several letters. At Tilburg, she rendered valuable services to the community as doorkeeper and community doctor. She was a member of the Dominican Third Order and was regarded by the Trappistines as one of themselves.
In a letter addressed to her confessor from Westerbork, dated “Transfiguratio, 6, VIII.” she expressed the most admirable spiritual sentiments, showing to what extent our Saint was seconded in her intentions by other Hebrew Catholics.
We quote the following passages from her letter:
“I want to send you my last greetings and to tell you that I have complete confidence in God and have surrendered myself entirely to His will. Even more — I regard it as a grace and privilege to be driven along this road under these conditions, a witness to the words of our good Fathers and shepherds in Christ.
“If our sufferings have been increased somewhat then we have received a double portion of grace and a glorious crown is being prepared for us in heaven. Rejoice with me. I am going forward unshaken, confidently and joyfully — like the Sisters who are with me — to testify to Jesus Christ and to bear witness to the Truth in company with our Bishops. We are going as children of Our Holy Mother, the Church; we will unite our sufferings with the sufferings of our King, our Saviour and our Bridegroom, sacrificing ourselves for the conversion, for the Jews, for those who persecute us, so that all may know the peace of Christ and his Kingdom. Join with me in thanking God for this great favor by singing an exultant Magnificat.”
The letter was signed, Sister M. Magdalena Dominica
(in the world, Dr. Meirowsky).
In our humble option, the sentiments that emanate from Dr. Meirowsky’s letter are no less sublime than those expressed by the early Christian martyrs as they went to their death by fire, by torture and by the lions, in the arenas of the Roman Empire.
“When they reached a place called Gethsemane, he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray’ and he took Peter and James and John with him. Horror and dismay came over him and he said to them, ‘My heart is ready to break with grief; stop here and stay awake.’ Then he went forward a little, threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, this hour might pass him by. ‘Abba, Father all things are possible to thee; take this cup away from me. Yet not what I will, but what thou wilst.’” Mark 26: 32-36
“As they led him away to execution they seized upon a man called Simon from Cyrene, on his way back from the country, put the cross on his back and made him walk behind Jesus carrying it.
“Great numbers of people followed, many women among them, who mourned and lamented over him. Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; no, weep for yourselves and your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say “Happy are the barren, the wombs that never bore a child, the breasts that never fed one.” Then they will start saying to the mountains, “Fall on us,” and to the hills, “Cover us.” For if these things are done when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?’” Luke 23: 26-31
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be
(Any suitable prayer may be said here)
Saint Edith, Pray For Us!