Friday, August 9, 2013

St. Edith Stein, Who Triumphed over the Nazi Death Camps: Pray for Us

My father survived the Japanese concentration camps of World War II.

My father was an Army Air Corps pilot when the war began, stationed at Clark Field in the Philippines. Not long after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded the Philippines; and my father was
Edith Stein
captured along with most of the American army in the spring of 1942.  He survived the Bataan Death March, the so-called "Hell ships" that transported American prisoners to Japan, and three and a half years of captivity in Japanese concentration camps. In August, 1945, he was liberated from a Japanese prison camp in Korea after the Americans dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Without a doubt my father suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Although he married and had three children, he never got over what he experienced as prisoner of war. For my father, the war never faded into the past--it was always present.  Unlike many combat veterans who refuse to speak about their war experiences, my father often talked about the concentration camps--sometimes as if his prison experiences were something that had happened just a couple of weeks ago.

My father could be violent. He physically beat his children, and he had a few violent episodes with adults. He never embraced his status as a father. In fact, I was his first child and he tried to have me aborted. He actually brought my mother to an abortion doctor without telling her what he had planned for her.  Why she refused to abort me I do not know.

My father's prison-camp experiences set the context of my childhood.  As a small child, I heard my father's stories about murder, torture, starvation, and suicide.  I was quite familiar with all these concepts by the time I was four years old. My mother put my father on a pedestal--the great war hero, the survivor of the Bataan Death March.  He had an Oklahoma license plate for his pickup truck that proclaimed "X-POW" in case anyone might forget that he was an ex-prisoner of war and thus entitled to an exemption from being a regular person.

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
My family was about as far from being a Holy Family as it was possible to get. Except for those times when he beat us, my father was almost completely indifferent to his children.  He showed no affection for my mother, and I don't think he ever gave her a present.  As far as I know, my parents never celebrated their wedding anniversary.  In fact, I did not know my parents' wedding date until after they both had died and I found an old newspaper clipping about the wedding.

From this anxiety-ridden childhood I passed into anxiety-ridden adulthood. With no model of a loving father or a loving family life, I inherited my father's difficulties with relationships. I struggled to find my vocational identity in the world of work.

Then in mid-life, I became a Catholic, and I began to see the world as God wanted me to see it.  I began to understand how God wanted me to live and work and to be a husband and father.

And when Pope John Paul named Edith Stein a saint of the Catholic Church I was astonished.  Saint Edith Stein, as all good Catholics know, was born in the Jewish faith, converted to Catholicism as a young woman, and entered the Carmelite order as a nun, where she took the name of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. In August 1942, she was living in a Carmelite convent in Holland when the Nazis ordered all Jews--even Christian converts--to turn themselves into the police. 

Although it is well documented that she had opportunities to escape, Edith Stein turned herself over to the Nazis and went to her death at the Auschwitz concentration camp in peace and serenity. It is said she comforted others--especially children--who travelled with her in the boxcars that took her to  an Auschwitz gas chamber.

Edith Stein's feast day  is August 9th--the day of her death at Auschwitz; and August 9th is also my birthday.  I interpret this apparent coincidence as  a special consolation to me--the son of a concentration camp survivor, and a special message from God that the Catholic faith conquers all hate, violence, abuse, and all the indignities of life on earth. 

Although I myself do not have the courage or strength of faith of Edith Stein, I am comforted to know that God has called up a few people--his saints--as examples of faith and courage. This sustains me in my times of doubt and anxiety; and I hope Edith Stein's example will comfort and sustain all Catholics on this her feast day.

St. Edith Stein, pray for us that God will give us strength, faith and courage to face whatever befalls us in this postmodern world.

Prisoners in Japanese Concentration Camp


Robert Royal. The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century. New York: Crossroads Books, 2000.

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