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Pope Beatifies Jewish-Born Nun Killed by Nazis

May 02, 1987|DON A. SCHANCHE | Times Staff Writer

MUENSTER, West Germany — Pope John Paul II on Friday beatified a Jewish-born Roman Catholic nun who was killed at Auschwitz. He used the occasion to speak out forcefully on abortion and mercy killing, likening them to Adolf Hitler's "terrible doctrine used to justify the murder of innocent people."

In remarks that appeared certain to stir protests from pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia groups, the pontiff compared the time in the 1930s "when the Nazis began to abduct and put to death people with mental disorders" to today's "powerful forces in society that pose a threat to human life."

"Euthanasia, mercy killing ostensibly on grounds of human sympathy, is again pronounced with alarming frequency and finds new, misled champions," he told a crowd of about 60,000 people at an open-air service in Muenster.

Again Attacks Abortion

"Nor can the church remain silent on the question of abortion, which has been almost deeply decontrolled in your and many other countries."

He compared abortion to the Nazis' belief that "it is permissible to destroy lives that are 'not worth living.' "

The Nazis' attitude, he said, was "a terrible doctrine used to justify the murder of innocent people, to license the violent death of invalids, cripples, people with incurable diseases and old people no longer capable of work."

Earlier, in Cologne, the pontiff presided over an outdoor Mass attended by more than 70,000 people at which he beatified Sister Theresa Benedicta a Cruce, a Carmelite nun born Edith Stein, who was executed along with her sister Rosa, also a convert to Catholicism, at Auschwitz on Aug. 9, 1942.

The ceremony, the second step to sainthood in the Catholic Church, had aroused protests from some Jewish leaders because in depicting the nun as a martyr the Vatican had said she died because she was a Roman Catholic, not because she was Jewish by birth.

John Paul defused the controversy to some extent by emphasizing her Jewishness along with her Christianity, stressing in his beatification sermon the Nazis' "insane ideology . . . in the name of a wretched form of racism" and deploring the fact that "several million sons and daughters of Israel were killed at these places of horror--from children to the elderly."

Of Sister Theresa, the Pope said, "In the extermination camp, she died as a daughter of Israel for the glory of the most holy name and at the same time as Sister Theresa Benedicta of the Cross." He said that her "life and the cross she had to bear were intimately connected with the destiny of the Jewish people."

Although John Paul's conciliatory tone did not completely mollify Jewish critics who feared that he would hold the Catholic convert up as an example for other Jews, it was welcomed both by members of her family who attended the ceremony and by one of the leading critics.

"I give full marks to the Pope for having tried," said James Baaden, a London-based American Jewish writer who is completing a biography of Edith Stein and whose critical correspondence with the Vatican concerning her scheduled beatification helped to trigger the controversy.

"I think he was looking for a way to say she was a fusion of Jew and Catholic," Baaden said.

But on the eve of the beatification, after John Paul had already emphasized the nun's Jewishness following his arrival in Cologne, a leading Jewish theologian, Pinchas Lapide, expressed deep reservations on West German television.

"Of all people, a baptized Jew who in her last will and testament rejected the faith of her birth as disbelief, who described the persecution by the Nazis as a fate which the Jews had chosen for themselves and who, in the end, offered herself as a sacrifice for the disbelief of the Jews, I consider (her beatification) embarrassing," Lapide said.

But Jewish nieces and nephews of the nun and other relatives, about 20 of whom attended the ceremony, were less critical, although some of them confessed to "mixed feelings and many emotions," in the words of a niece from California.

Susanne Batzdorff, 65, of Santa Rosa, noted that from Edith Stein's records it is known that she attempted to contact Pope Pius XI in 1933 in order to urge him to speak out against Hitler before the Nazis were firmly entrenched in power.

"I think of her and her own attempt to gain an audience with the Pope in 1933, which was impossible, and here I am shaking hands with today's Pope," Batzdorff said.

But then, referring to her aunt's beatification as a Catholic martyr, she added: "I still believe she was a Jewish martyr. I think she was one of 6 million. In her own family, she was one of four and one of two who died on the same day and exactly the same way, so she's not unique in that sense. As a Jewish martyr, she's the same as the 6 million.

"I'm hoping she will have achieved a better understanding between Jews and Christians, and if she did, it will be a miracle in itself."

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