Santa Rosa woman recalls aunt's wartorn journey to Catholic sainthood

  • Susannne Batzdorff holds a copy of her book "Aunt Edith" at her home in Santa Rosa on Thursday, March 28, 2013. Batzdorff's aunt Edith Stein was highly noted Catholic nun, and was killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz because of her Jewish roots. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

Poet, author and retired librarian Susanne Batzdorff of Santa Rosa may tell you that her Aunt Edith is a saint. She means it literally.

Batzdorff has spent much of her 91 years admiring, mourning, studying and speaking, writing and debating about Edith Stein. Batzdorff's brilliant aunt is considered by some as one of the most remarkable women of the 20th century for her books on philosophy and for having left Judaism for Catholicism. She became a nun who was killed in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942 and recognized as a saint by the Vatican in 1998.

Batzdorff and Stein grew up in a large, tight Jewish family in a German city, Breslau, that following World War II would be ceded to Poland. Just about the time Batzdorff was born in 1921, her then 30-year-old aunt was finding herself drawn to Catholicism.

Stein wrote in an autobiography that she quit praying at age 14 and for a time regarded herself an atheist. "She said she was searching for the truth and she didn't find it in Judaism," Batzdorff said.

Stein came upon a book on the life of St. Teresa of Avila at a friend's house, read it and then delved far further into the Roman Catholic Church. Her baptism on the first day of 1922 was wrenching for her family.

"They thought she was abandoning her heritage," said Batzdorff, a 30-year Sonoma County resident and observant Jew.

But her Aunt Edith was resolute. Already the holder of a Ph.D in philosophy at the time of her conversion, Stein deepened her Christian faith while teaching at a Dominican girls' high school and becoming a widely respected writer and lecturer in the nascent area of philosophy known as phenomenology.

In the spring of 1933, months after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Stein was dismissed from her position as a lecturer at the German Institute for Scientific Pedagogy. She was fired because her Jewish heritage offended the Nazis who'd issued a decree defining a non-Aryan as "anyone descended from non-Aryan, especially Jewish, parents or grandparents."

Incensed and alarmed by the burgeoning acts of anti-Semitism by Hitler and the National Socialist Party, Stein acted boldly -- she asked to meet with her pope, Pius XI, to beseech him to break his silence and speak out forcefully against the racist abuses by the Nazis.

Denied an audience, she wrote the Pope a letter that was released by the Vatican only 10 years ago. In it, Stein wrote, "As a child of the Jewish people who, by the grace of God, for the past 11 years has also been a child of the Catholic Church, I dare to speak to the Father of Christianity about that which oppresses millions of Germans."

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