Six questions to John Paul II about Edith Stein

In St Peter’s Square in Rome, on Sunday October 11, 1998, Pope John Paul II conducted the canonisation of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein in her secular life), a Carmelite nun of Jewish origin who was born in Breslau, lower Silesia on October 12, 1896 and who, according to the official version, died at Auschwitz, upper Silesia on August 9, 1942. In the course of his homily the pope stated:

Because she was Jewish, Edith Stein was taken with her sister Rosa and many other Catholic Jews from the Netherlands to the concentration camp in Auschwitz, where she died with them in the gas chambers.[1]

The end of this sentence implies that, for the pope, the Nazi gas chambers did indeed exist. Never until this time had John Paul II or any other pope before him thus taken the responsibility to assert the existence and the functioning of veritable chemical slaughterhouses in a German concentration camp. Pius XII in particular, who died in 1958, had always refrained from doing so and, like him, his contemporaries Churchill, Eisenhower, and de Gaulle refused to mention either genocide or gas chambers in the war memoirs which they wrote between 1948 and 1959.

Why did John Paul II take this extraordinary initiative, and what evidence did he have at his disposal to assert the existence of those gas chambers, then to specify that Edith Stein, her sister Rosa, and numerous other Jews from Holland had met their deaths in such gas chambers at Auschwitz?

Moreover, John Paul II added in the same homily:

From now on, as we celebrate the memory of this new saint from year to year, we must also remember the Shoah, that cruel plan to exterminate a people, a plan to which millions of our Jewish brothers and sisters fell victim.

There too, a question arises: what evidence did the Pope have, on the one hand, to assert the existence of a programme aiming to eliminate the Jewish people and, on the other hand, to put forth the figure of several million victims of that programme? No historian (and particularly not Raul Hilberg) today dares claim to have found the least trace of such a plan, whether in the “Wannsee Protocol” or anywhere else; as for the millions of Jewish victims, where or when has the breakdown of Jewish losses ever been done?

With these questions and a few others in mind, I have consulted, in the vast bibliography devoted to E. Stein, first a work of reference published in France in 1990, then three recent books that have come out in 1998 and, finally, quite a number of articles in various languages. I am conscious of the fact that this has been a limited inquiry. Naturally, if permission to do so were granted to revisionists, I should consult, first, the extremely rich archives of the International Tracing Service (ITS), located at Arolsen-Waldeck in Germany; unhappily these archives are kept under close supervision, notably at the behest of the State of Israel. The dossier which was put together with a view to E. Stein’s beatification, then her canonisation, would also interest me but the Vatican does not allow such consultation. I am thus reduced to requesting of the Vatican authorities, and of the Pope in particular, the favour of a response to the six questions put forth in my conclusion and to certain others which may be noted in the body of the present text.

From the various publications I have consulted, it emerges that in reality it is not known where, when or how E. Stein and her sister died. Thus it seems clear that one cannot rightly state as certain that they were 1) killed, 2) in one or more gas chambers at Auschwitz, 3) on August 9, 1942 (that being the date of death sanctioned by numerous authors as well as by the Pope, who has expressed his desire to make the anniversary of E. Stein’s demise a day of commemoration, for the entire Roman Catholic church, of the “Shoah”).

The Auschwitz “calendar”

According to the 1989 edition of Danuta Czech’s “Auschwitz calendar of events”, E. Stein, her sister Rosa, and 985 other Jews were deported from the camp of Westerbork in the Netherlands, arriving at Auschwitz on the 8th (and not the 9th) of August 1942. D. Czech would have her readers believe that of these 987 Jews, 464 were registered for work (315 men and 149 women), while the other 523 were immediately gassed.[2] As always in the “calendar”, this latter assertion is not supported by any evidence; thus, for that matter, a number of Jews who, as I have been able to show, survived the war are listed by this “calendar” as having been gassed. These 523 persons, of whom D. Czech seems to have found no trace in the camp archives, may well have been set down at Cosel (a stop along the way) or, just as well, been sent directly to one of the sub-camps of the Auschwitz complex or to any other concentration or labour camp.

According to Sister Waltraud Herbstrith’s book

In Das Wahre Gesicht Edith Steins (published in English under the title Edith Stein, a biography), generally considered a work of reference, Sister Waltraud Herbstrith writes:

The Dutch official state journal of 16 February 1950 carried the names of all of the Jews who had been deported from Holland on 7 August [1942]. In list no. 34 one may read “Number 44074, Edith Theresia Hedwig Stein, born October 12, 1891 in Breslau [Silesia], [transported] from Echt [Netherlands], died August 9, 1942″.[3]

And she goes on to add:

As it was acknowledged legally that no-one from that convoy had survived, the 9th of August [1942] was declared the victims’ date of decease.[4]

It will be noted that this official journal does not specify the date of E. Stein’s death and that W. Herbstrith declares that date to be “acknowledged legally” (“gerichtnotorisch feststand“), all of which implies that no real investigation has ever been carried out; this purported date of decease is the result of speculation, as happens in France with what is known as a “jugement déclaratif de décès” (“declaratory finding of decease”).[5]

According to the French weekly La Vie

A passage in a recent article in La Vie (formerly La Vie catholique illustrée) reads as follows:

[E. Stein was] executed in obscure conditions, doubtless in Auschwitz, officially the 9th of August 1942.[6]

It will be noted that the author of the article acknowledges that the date and place of E. Stein’s death are not really known; as for the choice of the word “executed”, it is abusive since, as it is unclear where and when her death occurred, it can hardly be known how it occurred.

According to the book by Joachim Bouflet

In his Edith Stein, philosophe crucifiée, Joachim Bouflet writes:

[E. Stein was deported] to the East. To Auschwitz where she was to be gassed on arrival, the 9th of August, with her sister Rosa.[7]

And adds, in his “chronology”:

9 August 1942: gassed with her sister Rosa at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It will be noted that the author (apparently unaware that the Steins’ convoy arrived at Auschwitz on the 8th of August and not the 9th) points out, on the faith of one knows not what evidence, that the “gassing” took place at Birkenau; at that date, according to the vulgate, this “gassing” could have occurred either at Auschwitz I or at a Birkenau “farm”.

According to the book by Bernard Molter

In Edith Stein, martyre juive de confession chrétienne, Bernard Molter writes:

On 7 August, the [Dutch] convoy departs. For the East. Then, silence. The great silence of Auschwitz-Birkenau where [E. Stein] is exterminated, probably upon arrival on 9 August.[8]

And he adds, in his “Repères biographiques” (“Important dates”):

Probably on the 9th of August, she is gassed to death at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

One will note that the author who, once again, seems not to know that the convoy arrived at Auschwitz on August 8 rather than August 9, has the honesty to write that it is “probably” on that latter date that E. Stein died. As for the word “exterminated”, it is all the more abusive here as such a word can be applied only to a group of persons, not to an individual. In writing: “On August 7, the convoy departs. For the East. Then, silence”, the author has brushed against reality; he ought to have stopped there and not added the next sentence.

According to the book by Christian Feldmann

In Edith Stein; Jüdin, Philosophin, Ordensfrau (“Edith Stein; Jewess, Philosopher, Nun”) German author Christian Feldmann writes:

According to the information of the Ministry of Justice [of which country?], Edith and Rosa Stein were gassed immediately after their arrival at Auschwitz, on August 9, 1942.[9]

According to Bernard Dupuy’s study

In a study entitled “Edith Stein dans les griffes de la Gestapo/Précisions nouvelles sur son envoi en déportation” (“Edith Stein in the clutches of the Gestapo / New information on her deportation”), Bernard Dupuy writes:

Two hundred forty Catholic Jews [among whom E. and R. Stein], identified, arrested, and deported together would seem to have been sent to the gas chambers just after arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau on the 9th of August.[10]

The author, who acknowledges his debt to W. Herbstrith’s work of reference and to the book by J. Bouflet, has the prudence to put that sentence in the conditional but, unlike those by whom he is inspired, he is imprudent enough to tack on the assertion that all of the Catholic Jews would seem to have been, like E. and R. Stein, gassed on August 9 [for: August 8].

A Widespread Plagiary?

In short, all of these authors seem to have copied one another, or drawn on the same poor and doubtful source, and each of them, finally, adorns the traditional account with a few inventions of his own.

One may consider the question whether the Pope or his counsellors have not, in turn, merely repeated the same hackneyed story of the fate of E. Stein and the other Jews in her convoy without taking the trouble to verify any of it.

Another Question: May E. Stein have died of typhus ?

If E. Stein did indeed arrive at Auschwitz in August 1942, may she not have perished in one of the dreadful typhus epidemics that ravaged the camp at the time? Even the town of Auschwitz was touched by them. A number of Germans, including some SS physicians, died of typhus in the camp.

Another Question: Did any members of the Stein family survive the war?

The pope in his homily saluted:

the many pilgrims who have come to Rome, particularly the members of the Stein family who have wanted to be with us on this joyful occasion.

Admittedly, some members of her family had left Europe in time but others remained, in Breslau for instance. Thus one may read in W. Herbstrith’s book:

On 28 July [1942] there came [to E. Stein’s knowledge] the terrible news that Edith Stein’s brothers and sisters in Breslau, the family of her brother Paul, and her sister Freida had been taken to Theresienstadt.[11]

It would be interesting to know the fate of these persons. Did any of them survive the war? If so, were any of their children, born after the war, in attendance at the ceremony?

Were the Dutch bishops primarily responsible for this deportation?

We are often told that the occupying power cynically deceived the Catholic bishops of the Netherlands: that after having assured them that converted Jews would not be affected by any coercive measures, the Germans, suddenly going back on their word, decided to deport such Jews. But is the truth perhaps altogether different? Did the Dutch Roman Catholic Church perhaps first break its explicit or implicit commitments, then adopt a resolutely provocative attitude towards the occupying forces?

To reply to this grave question, let us compare passages in two of the biographies, referring first to words in C. Feldmann’s book that express the anti-German point of view, then to an extract of a document in the book by W. Herbstrith, which shows the German wartime point of view.

C. Feldmann writes:

On July 11, 1942, the spiritual leaders of all [Christian] denominations sent a telegram to the Commissar of the Reich, Seyss-Inquart, in which they protested against the deportation of Jewish families. — To fool everyone, the authorities of the Reich had given assurances that converted Jews were not to be affected by coercive measures. But that did not deter the Churches of the Netherlands from declaring their solidarity with the persecuted Jews. A heated protest against the deportation of Jewish families was read out on July 26 in all the churches of Holland, of all denominations. In the Catholic churches, a pastoral letter asking that all believers make a self-criticism was read out in addition to the protestation: “[…] Have we not nourished feelings of impious hatred and bitterness?” The letter ended with a prayer that was quite provocative in regard to the occupying forces […]. Such outspoken resistance to the cowing of public conscience could obviously not be tolerated. Still less so as the clergy had violated Reich Commissar Seyss-Inquart’s express prohibition of the reading out in church of the protest telegram which had been addressed to him. The Nazi occupying authorities reacted violently on August 2 […]. They arrested all Catholic Jews, priests and nuns included, 1,200 persons all told, according to some estimates.[12]

The reader may note that, even in the eyes of an author very favourable to the cause of the Jews and Catholics, the attitude the bishops had adopted, in this particular case, was a deliberately provocative one. “A heated protest… a prayer that was quite provocative… Such outspoken resistance… the clergy had violated Reich Commissar Seyss-Inquart’s express prohibition”: such are the words chosen by C. Feldmann. But there is another point, appreciably more important, which deserves to be stressed and which raises another question: how is it that the Germans arrested the Catholic Jews without at the same time arresting the Protestant ones? How is this difference of reaction to be explained? Is there not a precise reason for this anomaly?

The answer to these questions seems to lie in a German document that C. Feldmann passes over in silence and which W. Herbstrith, unfortunately, cites only in part. It emerges from this document that, for the Germans, the Catholic Church and the various Protestant denominations had been advised that they could intervene in favour of their brethren of Jewish descent but not in favour of unconverted Jews. If these churches looked after their flocks, the Germans would not take action against those among them who were of Jewish blood. A key passage reads:

The Protestant authorities are not averse to this way of seeing things and have not, for their part, incited any [such] demonstration or prayer in their churches. On the contrary, the Catholic Church, this past Sunday, spoke during its services of the deportation of the Jews. This, according to its leaders, was due to the fact that the Reich Commissar’s point of view had not become known everywhere in time.[13]

It can be seen there that, from the German authorities’ standpoint, the Catholic Church had feigned ignorance of a warning, a promise, and an express prohibition which the Protestant churches, for their part, had heeded. It may well be that, in some Protestant houses of worship, the hierarchy’s instructions were at times disregarded but it was the Catholic Church which, at the highest national level, chose not to take heed in the least of the occupying authorities’ warning, promise and express prohibition; it even added to its refusal an act of defiance: it had the protest telegram read out in public, along with the pastoral letter.

That being the case, can it not reasonably be said that it was this refusal to heed, this defiance on the part of the Church which prompted Edith Stein’s deportation? One may deem the Dutch Catholic Church’s initiative courageous, just as one may consider bombings and assassinations, carried out by terrorists or resistance fighters, to be justified but, come the time for reprisals – inevitable in the case at hand, according to C. Feldmann himself – where are those who are primarily responsible to be found? Would not E. Stein, R. Stein and the other Catholic Jews have been spared a deportation which, for some, resulted in death, had the Dutch Catholic Church behaved in the same way as the Protestant churches? Without meaning to offend anybody, may one not rightfully pose that question?

Why are there such discrepancies between the various translations of the homily?

The Vatican and its official daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano are known for the great care they take in rendering papal documents into various languages. They have no shortage of expert translators. Yet, after a comparison of the different versions (English, French, German, and Italian) of the October 11 homily, two questions arise:

1) How is it that a passage in the German and English versions relates that Edith and Rosa Stein were deported along with “many other Catholic Jews from the Netherlands” whereas, in the French and Italian versions, the word “Catholic” does not appear in the corresponding sentence?

2) Why is the French version hebraised in the sense that, while the others mention the Lord (“der Herr”, “il Signore”), it instead speaks of Yahvé?


Through the agency of L’Osservatore Romano, to which I address the present text in order that it be passed on to the proper authority in the Vatican, I hereby take the liberty, in summing up, of asking the following questions of John Paul II, in the hope of receiving a reply that I may, with his permission, duly make public:

  1. What evidence have you that may establish the death of Edith Stein in a homicidal gas chamber at Auschwitz on August 9,  1942?
  2. What evidence have you of the existence of a German government plan for the physical elimination of the Jewish people?
  3. Have you ordered an investigation, particularly in conjunction with the International Tracing Service (ITS) at Arolsen-Waldeck, to determine whether, for example, Edith and Rosa Stein did not die elsewhere than at Auschwitz or did not fall victim to the typhus epidemics which, notably in 1942, ravaged the Auschwitz camp to the point of causing hundreds of deaths per day, sparing neither German guards nor SS camp physicians?
  4. Did any members of the Stein family who were interned by the Germans survive the war, and, if so, were any such relatives present at the canonisation ceremony at the Vatican on October 11, 1998?
  5. Does the primary responsibility for the German decision to deport the Catholic Jews of the Netherlands not lie with the country’s wartime Roman Catholic bishops who, unlike the Protestant authorities, seem to have inspired – or at least knowingly allowed – actions that were likely to prompt such a decision?
  6. Why are there such serious discrepancies between the various translations of the homily which you pronounced on October 11, 1998?

N.B. The young French historian Vincent Reynouard has recently published a revisionist examination of the case of Edith Stein; see “Sur Edith Stein”, ANEC Informations, October 29, 1998, p. 3-5.

November 4, 1998


[1] L’Osservatore Romano, weekly English language edition, October 14, 1998, p. 1.
[2] Danuta Czech, Kalendarium der Ereignisse im Konzentrationslager Auschwitz-Birkenau 1939-1945, Rowohlt, Hamburg 1989, p. 269.
[3] Waltraud Herbstrith, Das Wahre Gesicht Edith Steins (“The True Face of Edith Stein”), Kaffke-Verlag, Aschaffenburg, 1987 [1971], verbesserte Auflage [revised and corrected edition], p. 176. (Work published in English translation under the title Edith Stein, a Biography, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1992 [1985].)
[4] Ibid.
[5] When the date of a deportee’s death is not known, the registry office holds it to be the date on which that person is ascertained or presumed to have arrived in a given camp. In certain Jewish cemeteries in Germany there are headstones bearing mention, in their inscriptions, of the same date of death and the same camp for two or three family members; thus the observer is led to believe that these persons were simultaneously murdered in one particular camp, whereas in reality they may well have perished separately, i.e. on different dates, of different causes, in different circumstances, even in different camps.
[6] Jean-Pierre Manigne, “Edith Stein, juive et martyre”, La Vie, October 8, 1998, p. 71.
[7] Joachim Bouflet, Edith Stein, philosophe crucifiée, Presses de la Renaissance, Paris 1998, p. 273.
[8] Bernard Molter, Edith Stein, martyre juive de confession chrétienne, Cana, Paris 1998, p. 145.
[9] Christian Feldmann, Edith Stein, juive, athée, moniale, Éditions Saint-Augustin, Saint-Maurice (Switzerland) 1998, p. 144
[10] Istina, XLIII (1998), p. 289.
[11] W. Herbstrith, op. cit., p. 165.
[12] C. Feldmann, op. cit., p. 138-139.
[13] W. Herbstrith, op. cit., p. 177.