St. Edith Stein

(1891-1942)

Not all Jewish victims of the Hitlerian Holocaust were Jews in religion. Some were Jewish converts to Christianity, and in that sense martyrs of both the Old and the New Testaments. Edith Stein was a stellar example. Edith was born into a devout Jewish family of Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland). She was a warm and popular member of the Stein family. Her nephews and nieces still remember her fondly for her reading to them and telling them stories when on vacation.

Brilliant and promising from childhood on, Stein began the graduate study of philosophy at the University of Goettingen in 1913. Here she became the prize pupil of Professor Edmund Husseri, founder of the modern philosophy called “phenomenonology”. During World War I she interrupted her university studies to serve in a Red Cross hospital. After the war she returned to Goettingen and finished her doctoral studies. Her dissertation was an analysis of empathy.

After earning her degree, Edith worked as a teacher, counselor, lecturer and writer, growing in prominence as a professional philosopher.

In an autobiographical memoir she wrote several years later, Life in a Jewish Family, Dr. Stein said that she had given up the practice of Judaism by the time she was 15. Her conversion to Catholicism was therefore that of an agnostic rather than a Jew. Her inclination to Catholicism was probably influenced in part by the conversion of Max Scheler, one of several leading phenomenonologists who became Catholics. But what first attracted her attention to Christianity was the inspiration of Frau Adolf Reinach, a devout Protestant woman. Her husband, Adolf Reisach, one of Edith’s university friends, was killed in action in1917. The courage with which his widow accepted the loss impressed Edith with “the cross and the divine strength which it imparts to those who carry it.” “It was the moment when my belief collapsed” she said, “and Christ shone forth; Christ in the mystery of the Cross.” Now she began to study the Catholic Christian faith. Her reading of the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila marked the turning point in her conversion. She was baptized January 1, 1922. Her family were naturally surprised, and her mother and grandmother deeply shocked. But Edith remained loyal to all her kinsfolk, and proud to “belong to Christ not only spiritually but according to the flesh.”

Although Edith now gave up her job as assistant to Professor Husseri, she continued her teaching, lecturing and writing. She undertook to reconcile the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas with the philosophy of phenomenology. In 1932 she was appointed lecturer at the Catholic Pedagogical Institute at Muenster, a state-funded position.

Edith held that position for only one year because of ominous political developments. In 1933 the Nazi government issued an anti-Semitic ruling that no non-Aryan could teach in a school funded by the Reich. Actually, this repulsive law was not unwelcome to Dr. Stein in that it helped her to decide to become a Carmelite nun, a long-cherished wish. She entered the Cologne Carmel on October 14, 1933, taking the religious name Theresia Benedicta of the Cross. Her Carmelite superiors wisely decided to let her continue her scholarly studies and writing in the cloister.

For nine years Sister Stein continued her important literary and philosophical labors. In 1938, however, the Nazis began to bear down still more heavily upon religious Jews and people of Jewish ancestry. The Cologne Carmelites decided it would be safer for Sister Theresia to move to the Carmel at Echt, across the border in the Netherlands. So she went there on January 1, 1939. Her sister Rose, who had become a Catholic in 1936 but remained a laywoman, joined Edith at Echt a year later as a monastery guest.

All went well until mid-1942. The Nazis occupied the Netherlands as early as 1940. They brought with them their mad scheme of ridding the world of Jews, but at first they raised no question about the 1,000 Dutch Catholics of Jewish background, ordering only the deportation of Jewish Netherlanders up to December 15, 1942. The Catholic bishops privately protested this measure of the occupying Germans. Failing to get action, they issued a pastoral letter read in all the churches on July 26,1942, denouncing the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

The Nazis reacted quickly. On July 27, they ordered the immediate deportation of all Catholics of Jewish background. The reason? “Because the bishops interfered.” On August 4, Edith Stein and her sister were arrested at the Carmel of Echt and entrained to Auschwitz. When arrested, Edith said to Rose, “Come, let us go for our people.”

Two weeks later Edith and Rose Stein were gassed to death at the infamous death camp. The Carmelite fulfilled her religious name: Theresia Benedicta of the Cross.

Pope John Paul II beatified Edith Stein as a martyr on May 1, 1987. Some have asked whether she is to be considered a Jewish martyr or a Christian martyr. Paradoxically, she could be considered both. But she could qualify equally as a person and as a saintly scholar. Her 17 volumes, when they have been translated into English, may identify her as a great intellectual.

Sister Edith Stein would become even better known after her beatification. In the very year of her beatification a two-year-old girl in Brockton, Massachusetts, named Benedicta McCarthy after Professor Stein, accidentally ingested a lethal dose of Tylenol. Through the intercession of Blessed Theresia Benedicta, she was preserved from death. The Holy See approved the miracle in 1998. Pope John Paul II raised Edith Stein to the rank of “saint” on October 11, 1998. A saint for Catholics and a saint for Jesus.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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