In my work relating to Edith Stein I was always conscious of my role as a close relative who knew her personally, who remembered her vividly and who therefore had that close personal relationship; that it was my place: to make sure that her portrayal by others would not depart from truth, because truth was so important to her! And it's important to me to see her truthfully represented and not by distortion, by exaggeration, and untruth that could have a way of creeping into the picture when nobody seems to be watching. So I appointed myself that watchdog that often wrote to people and corrected their impressions. And I felt that was what I was supposed to be doing.
I want to mention a few personal memories. Tante (auntie) Edith usually came for a visit during her summer vacation. Her arrival was always eagerly awaited by all the nephews and nieces. The large house which we lived in belonged to my grandmother, and in it we had quite a few of the extended Stein family residing. She always seemed to bring in an atmosphere of quiet joy into the house, something festive and special. The other aunts, whom we saw every day, we tended to take for granted, I must admit.
Aunt Edith took us seriously, she had patience with children. She could listen and she would read us stories. I was especially intrigued by the tales of adventure of two boys in Iceland who rode out on the stormy seas, braving wind and weather. Jan Svensson was the author and I wrote to him a fan letter with the help of my Aunt Edith. And I was thrilled to get an answer from him: a postcard signed by him and addressed to me. I must have been about seven or eight years old at the time.
My aunt decided to enter Carmel in 1933. It was a very hard time for us. Hitler had just become Chancellor of Germany and we Jews knew at once that hard times were ahead of us. Anti-Semitic laws were immediately passed. Jews were fired from their jobs; life became increasingly more difficult from month to month. Grandmother was grieved about Edith’s decision to become a cloistered nun in an order that was especially strict. From now on she knew they would never see one another again. We children, ten and eleven years old, sense the atmosphere of sadness in the house. We knew what was happening. So one day I was offered, quite by chance, an opportunity to talk to Tante (auntie) Edith privately when I chanced to meet her in the dentist's waiting room. We walked home from there just two of us, and I asked her my burning question: "Why are you doing this now? Now?" That meant: right at this time when Jews were under attack and the future looked about as bleak as possible. "Now..." This meant, "why do this to our beloved grandmother who was eighty four years old, who would be deeply hurt by this? Why not wait until she was no longer with us? Why now?" She answered me more or less like this: "I shall always be part of this family. I will write. I will want to hear all about your life, your concerns. I want you to share your joys and troubles and you look after Grandma for me." She described the scene in her own writings, and she concludes: "she listened and she understood." But, as I always say, I'm still trying to understand.
Our correspondence continued until the United States entered the war. Then all contact ceased. It was only after the end of World War II that we found out the fate of our two aunts: Rosa and Edith. Aunt Edith is a saint now, but my mother who was only a year older than Edith and her good friend all through their lives used to say, "I would a thousand times rather have a living sister than a dead saint."
We're fortunate to live in a age when real saints still walk among us and their relatives can share such personal insights. Stories like these always make me wonder a bit how much we could have learned from the relatives of other Catholic saints in the early Church.