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Leo Baeck Fellowship - History on the Street 12/12

Der Amerikaner Eric McKinley, Stipendiat im Leo Baeck Fellowship Programm der Studienstiftung, verbrachte einen Teil seines Forschungsjahres in Köln.


 
I spent part of my Leo Baeck Fellowship year in Cologne. While researching at the Historisches Archiv des Erzbistums Köln, I would walk by a memorial situated nearby every morning. The memorial is of Edith Stein, and the story it tells addresses numerous key concepts that every scholar of German-Jewish culture must confront.
At the site, a plaque recounts Stein’s life with select information: born in Breslau in 1891, she was the eleventh child of a Jewish family. While a high school and college student, she lost her faith in Judaism. She studied philosophy, psychology, history, and German studies in Breslau and Göttingen, before pursuing a doctorate degree under famed philosopher Edmund Husserl. It was in this time that she had her first serious encounters with Christianity, and she decided to convert to Catholicism after reading from the autobiography of Teresa of Avila. In 1922, she converted to Catholicism. She was a teacher and university lecturer in Speyer and Münster; that is, until 1933 when National Socialist legislation that denied Jews the right to hold such positions revoked her professorship. She then entered the Disclaced Carmelite monastery in Cologne and took the name Teresia Benedicta a cruce (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross). In 1938, she took her eternal vows, but soon after had to flee Germany and ended up in Holland, where she entered a monastery in Echt. On August 7, 1942, she was deported to Auschwitz; she was murdered there on August 9, 1942.

What the plaque tells in words, the sculpture shows in images, and what the plaque cannot tell in words, the sculpture evokes in the way it forces the viewer to see. The sculpture has three women, all of them Edith. Reading the sculpture from right to left, the first representation of Edith shows her leaning on the Star of David. The depiction induces a sense of weighty contemplation, recalling Rodin’s The Thinker. She does not take the rejection of her inherited faith lightly. The second likeness of Edith represents the period in her life in which she did not have a faith—in between Judaism and Catholicism, she didn’t have direction. It is also a representation of a fundamental division in her identity. From certain perspectives, she appears whole, but from others, she is fragmented. The third representation shows Edith dressed in monastic garb, carrying the symbol of martyrdom in front of her. The series does not tell the story of Edith progressing from one identity to another; she was always all three. Or, perhaps she was always divided. Maybe it is the likeness in the middle that both fuses and balances the other two.

The memorial is much more than the three images of Edith. It invites the viewer to perceive it from multiple angles and see how the rest of her story unfolds; not in representations of the woman, but in her environment and under her circumstances. The monument is elevated, and in front of the third sculpture of Edith there are numerous sets of footprints—some barefoot, others not. All of them are heading in the same direction as Edith, carrying her cross. The footprints lead to a pile of shoes, eliciting images of the footwear taken from every inmate in a Nazi concentration camp. The only things that keep the shoes from piling down onto the street are two tablets of stone, the Ten Commandments—the first increasingly burdened. The only pair of feet facing Edith rather than moving with her is on a flat stone, as opposed to the rough stone of the rest of the monument. Somewhat displaced, as if it were floating in the middle of the monument, the pierced feet represent Jesus. When one stands on them, the viewer looks directly into Edith’s face, while Edith’s divided self lingers melancholically over her left shoulder.

From Edith’s perspective, it looks as if the world is coming undone in front of her; a pile of victims’ shoes just to the left of a fractured cross, the crevice of which is hollow, with the exception of a crown of thorns.

The multiple ways of seeing the various iterations of Edith and the broad context under which she lived, and ultimately died, stays with the viewer. Historically and today, Cologne is one of Germany’s most Catholic cities. It is the home to the magnificent Cologne Cathedral, which in turn is the home of the Archbishop of Germany.

The monument to Edith Stein is located in a Catholic institutional center. It is right next to Catholic libraries, offices, and archives. The abundance of Christian imagery asks the viewer to see Edith as a Christian martyr, even though she was victimized despite her Christianity, not because of it. She was killed because Nazi perpetrators and collaborators only saw the image of her with the Star of David—the second representation of her would have been viewed as an impossibility and the third deemed irrelevant.

The narrative that this memorial tells is relevant to the study of German-Jewish culture and society. Most notably, it addresses the tension between the mutability and immutability of identity—the former often the domain of individuals and the latter the province of groups invested in neat social division.

As Leo Baeck fellows, we must always keep this tension in mind. And as scholars of German-Jewish culture and society that spend a lot of time researching in archives, reading in libraries, and writing in cafes, it is also to our benefit to remember that the significance of our topics and collective academic agenda can also be found on the street.

Eric McKinley