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What did you see in my face?

· The meeting between Edith Stein and Etty Hillesum in Westerbork transit camp ·

The eyes of two extraordinary women met, before they faced the hell of Auschwitz

We are publishing the preface to the book: “Il volto. Principio di interiorità. Edith Stein, Etty Hillesum” (Milan, Marietti, 96 pages, 14 euros) by Cristiana Dobner.

Edith Stein and Etty Hillesum - two of the most interesting intellectuals of the 20th century, two extraordinary women, brought together by the fact that they were both Jews who were deported and killed in Auschwitz- actually met.

We know that this meeting took place in the Dutch camp of Westerbork, just before their deportation to the concentration camp. We know this from Etty's brief note which tells of the arrival of the two nuns, Edith and her sister Rosa, “born into a rich and educated Jewish family of Wrocław”.

We will never know what was said. We will never be able to witness their eyes meeting. With Cristiana Dobner, we can share the certainty that they “recognized” the face of the other, those faces that, writes the author, reveal “the person's real uniqueness and individuality”.

Literary genres exist which simulate meetings that never happened, usually between the author and the obviously famous character who lived in another era. They are called “impossible interviews” and enjoyed great success. Cristiana Dobner's book instead chooses another path, one more difficult and profound: that which imagines and describes what each of the two women saw in the face of the other.

Knowing that their's were faces that revealed a long, inner reflection, faces that mirrored inner qualities; knowing full well the meaning of human relationships, faces that were inscribed with traces of other meaningful encounters which they experienced; retracing their thoughts and the important meetings, Ms Dobner endeavours to reconstruct what their faces must have said to each other, even without words, with only a gaze. A gaze that especially in such a dramatic moment was without a doubt able to read deeply, to grasp the essential meaning of their mutual look.

Edith's face is reconstructed through a careful examination of a few photos and mostly through the words of those who met her, faithfully recorded in the minutes of her beatification cause, which the author consulted. A source generally overlooked but quite rich.

Some of these recounted meetings that took place when Edith was cloistered and thus only a veiled face behind a grill revealed her soul with a voice and words. The most meaningful words said of her are those of her friend Fr Eric Pržywara which describe her “faithful and steadfast love for her people and... a strength which emanated from her”. These words confirm a style that Dobner describes as “resonant with classic and philosophical strength, in the union between the phenomenological philosophy of  Edmund Husserl, prevalent at the time and the thoughts of Thomas Aquinas, and with artistic strength, favouring Bach and Reger and the hymnody of the Church”.

Even Etty, when she met Edith, radiated strength. For her, the terrible anxiety of waiting for the moment of deportation “inexplicably became a life force and not discouragement”.

Etty's long and painful path is less intellectual than that of Edith's and more experiential. The true face of the young Dutch Jew emerges thanks to a meeting with an original psychoanalyst who read   hands, Julius Spier, who guided her on a long and painful path within herself.

Etty is led along the way by guiding thread, the words that she learned in the Torah “God created man in his likeness” but knows that this thread is subjected to constant tension. In notebooks, letters and diaries Etty meticulously recounts her inner voyage, this discovery of her true face.

Because she was able to understand this, she did not bring with her to the camp pictures of those most dear to her. She knew that their face were preserved in the walls of her inner self, where she could always find them.

Not by chance did Dobner choose  this face as a privileged means of communication.

The author is well aware that the theme of the face became “the new and loftiest philosophical discourse in modern times”, as was clearly explained by Emmanuel Lévinas, a great Jewish philosopher who wrote that the face, in permitting the encounter with the other, opens to the idea of infinity.

“In this way”, Dobner writes, “a relationship is established in which one seeks the other. However the profound meaning is not contained in the relationship itself but refers to the beyond. And certainly this opening on the infinite was clearly present in the two women's minds and hearts when they met, both open to the epiphany of the divine. Perhaps they encountered it together, if only for a few brief moments, and their reciprocal gaze was a gift before the hell they were about to confront”.




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 20, 2020