When I tell people the story of Saint Edith Stein, they look confused and say, “Stein doesn’t sound like a Catholic name.” Well, that is partly true.
Who Was Edith?
Edith Stein was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) in 1891. It was the Hebrew holy day of Yom Kippur, which delighted Edith’s devoutly Jewish mother. Edith was the youngest of 11 children in the family. Her father ran a lumber company, but when Edith was a toddler, he died suddenly.
Edith’s mother prayed regularly at the synagogue, often with children in tow. Edith, however, struggled with her own faith and, when she turned 15, stopped believing in God.
Edith entered the University of Breslau at age 19 and studied to become a teacher. Although an avowed Atheist, she gravitated toward psychology courses to help her understand the human spirit. However, she abandoned psychology’s purely-scientific approach when she read a book by German philosopher Edmund Husserl. The book introduced Husserl’s new, intuitive philosophical method, which he called phenomenology.
Edith left Breslau to study with Professor Husserl at Gottingen University. She later followed him to the University of Frieburg and earned a doctorate degree. As both a faculty member and Husserl’s assistant, young Dr. Stein was admired for her intellect, ideas, and strong research and writing skills. She established life-long professional and personal relationships with her phenomenology colleagues.
In its most elemental (and oversimplified) sense, phenomenology examines human consciousness as it relates to experiences that are perceived by thought. This sort of research easily bumps up against the realm of spiritual exploration. Some of Edith’s colleagues were new converts to Catholicism, and the group formally and informally shared views that mixed rational and religious concepts.
One day, while visiting the home of two university friends, Edith came across the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila and read it in one sitting. Teresa’s ideas about the mind and “the soul” mirrored Edith’s own theories and answered questions she pondered about the nature of life. This pivotal moment led to Edith’s baptism in the Catholic Church at age 30.
Edith felt a calling to leave academia. She wanted to join the Carmelite nuns, where she could live and pray in a secluded (cloistered) community. Her spiritual advisors opposed the plan, thinking this ultimate commitment to Catholic life might break her aging mother’s heart.
Edith reluctantly agreed and instead took teaching positions at Catholic institutions. She continued her research and writing efforts and was a sought-after speaker on the Catholic lecture circuit in Germany and beyond. Her philosophical concepts were popular, including her view that women played a unique role in ensuring the well-being of the Church within the larger community.
As Edith continued her work, anti-Semitism gained traction in Germany. The Nazi Party turned its attention to educational institutions, and soon Edith was forced to vacate her teaching post. Evaluating her options, Edith again hoped to join the Carmelites.
On Easter Sunday 1935, Edith was admitted to the cloistered Carmel community in Cologne. From then on, she wore a full nun’s habit and was called by her religious name, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
The Stein family felt betrayed. They didn’t understand how Edith could so fully commit to Christianity, the faith of the Nazis. But, in Edith’s view, she was still Jewish in the cultural and ancestral sense. Her family didn’t know it, but prior to joining the convent, Edith had written to the Pope, asking him to condemn the growing Nazi menace. In her letter, she said:
“As a child of the Jewish people who, by the grace of God, for the past eleven years has also been a child of the Catholic Church, I dare to speak to the Father of Christianity about that which oppresses millions of Germans. For weeks we have seen deeds perpetrated in Germany which mock any sense of justice and humanity, not to mention love of neighbor. For years the leaders of National Socialism have been preaching hatred of the Jews. . . . But the responsibility must fall, after all, on those who brought them to this point and it also falls on those who keep silent in the face of such happenings.”
It isn’t clear whether or not the letter influenced the Pope. His immediate actions on the matter were minimal.
Edith resumed her scholarly writing in the cloister. As Nazi influence increased, however, she worried that her presence in the convent endangered the other nuns. These fears intensified after the November 1938 Kristallnacht, in which civilian mobs and the German S.A. beat and killed Jews and destroyed their businesses, homes, schools, hospitals, and synagogues.
On December 31, 1938, the nuns in Cologne helped Edith escape from Germany, and transferred her to the Carmelite house at Echt, Holland. Later, her sister, Rosa Stein, joined Edith as a lay worker in the Echt convent.
In her new home, Edith continued writing and started work on an autobiography about growing up in her Jewish family.
Then, in 1940, safety in the Netherlands dissolved with the onset of German occupation. The Nazis rounded up and deported Dutch Jews, including Catholic converts. Holland’s Christian churches tried to step in and stop the deportations. Still, Edith felt a strong foreboding: she would not survive the war.
On August 2, 1942, two S.S. officers arrived at the Echt Carmel and arrested Edith and Rosa. Edith was clear-headed and calm and took her distraught sister’s hand. “Come, Rosa,” she said. “We’re going for our people.”
Edith and Rosa were sent to the prison camp at Amersfoort, then transferred to the Westerbork detention site in northern Holland. Edith was a peaceful presence among the prisoners. When husbands were forcibly separated from their wives, she cared for children whose mothers succumbed to despair.
Four days after arriving at Westerbork, Edith and Rosa were awakened in the middle of the night along with other prisoners and loaded onto a train. Their final destination was the Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied Poland. Edith and her sister died there, in a gas chamber, on August 9, 1942.
Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross/Dr. Edith Stein is considered a martyr for her bravery in the face of Nazi persecution. Eyewitness accounts and her own words reveal how she stood up for and with the Jewish people before and during the war.
Edith left behind a substantial body of intellectual and spiritual writing, in essays and books, and in personal correspondence. Among her most notable works are Life in a Jewish Family (her unfinished autobiography), Essays on Woman, On the Problem of Empathy, and Finite and Eternal Being: An Attempt to an Ascent to the Meaning of Being. Throughout her adult life, Edith set her great mind to the task of understanding the meaning of life: “My search for the truth was a constant prayer.”
My Song about Edith
While Edith was detained at the Westerbork camp in Holland, two men arrived with supplies from the Echt convent. They were able to speak with Edith, and thinking they might ease her anxiety, offered her a cigarette. Edith, dressed in full nun’s habit, declined, but shared that, as a young woman, she had certainly done her share of smoking and dancing, too.
This conversation at Westerbork — in which Edith’s humanity collided with her religion and her tragic destiny — inspired my song Edie. ∗