On August 9, the Church celebrates the life of St. Edith Stein, Jewish philosopher, atheist-turned-Catholic convert, Discalced Carmelite nun, and martyr.
Known in religion as Sr. Teresa, Benedicta a Croce, (St. Teresa, Blessed by the Cross), she and her sister Rosa were arrested on August 2, 1942 and were transported by cattle train to the death camp at Auschwitz where, days later, they were killed in the gas chambers–simply because they were Jews.
She was canonized on October 11, 1998.
Born in 1891 into a large devout Jewish family, her father died an early death, and while admiring her mother’s piety, Edith would follow her own religious insights.
From Darkness …
Edith excelled as a university student of philosophy but, in the process, lost her Jewish faith. At the time, the prevailing view rejected the existence of the soul, and she concurred. Two of her philosopher-mentors influenced her thinking: Edmund Husserl (d 1938) and Max Scheler (d 1928), both Jews and Lutheran converts.
Husserl trained his students to look at everything with strict impartiality without pure rational thought; the intellect had a capacity for receiving truth. Scheler was convinced that religion alone makes the human being human. Edith was deeply affected and drawn to the truth of his statements, however unfamiliar. She pressed on seeking truth and asking if a personal God did exist.
… Into the Light
Truth often comes to us through the witness of other people’s lives. This is what happened to Edith in two instances, both of which changed her life.
In 1917, Edith’s colleague and friend, Adolf Reinach was killed in World War I. On her invitation to the Reinach home to organize his papers, Edith met Frau Reinach. Here was a woman suffering intensely, and yet Edith saw only hope and joy in her face. Her rational arguments crumbled in the face of the mystery of the cross, which transformed her from an atheist to a believer. Still, the road to the Catholic faith remained at a distance.
Again, while visiting at a friend’s house, Edith came across the autobiographical Life of Teresa of Avila. After staying up almost the entire night, she put down the book and said to herself, “This is the truth.” Teresa’s experience was hers; Teresa’s words were hers: “I was so blind! What ever made me think that I could find a remedy apart from you? Such stupidity–running away from the light.” St. Paul would call this “the futility of the mind” (Eph 4:17).
For the first time in her life, she could see.
Now the road to Edith’s conversion steadily developed. She bought a catechism and a missal, studied them both, and went to her first Mass after which she asked the pastor to baptize her. Apprized of her background, he suggested that she read St. Thomas Aquinas, a philosopher and theologian, as a proximate preparation for her reception into the Church. On New Year’s Day, 1922, at the age of thirty-one, Edith Stein was received into the Church. Her mother wept with sadness.
Integration of Mind, Heart, and Will
Following her conversion, Edith took a teaching position in Speyer at a secondary school conducted by the Dominican sisters. She won the hearts of the teachers and students alike. In addition to teaching, she lectured, especially to women. On one occasion, speaking to them, she declared, “The nation … doesn’t simply need what we have. It needs what we are.”
In 1925, the noted philosopher, Eric Przywara, S.J., asked Edith to translate St. Thomas beginning with his disputed questions on truth. She was now convinced of the importance of academics as an apostolic vocation to follow; St. Thomas’ works served not only as a path to truth but also as an analytical way to personal experience of God. For him, there is a unity between the thinking person and the person who contemplates and love: “The perfection of love does not consist in a certainty of knowledge but in an intensity of being seized” (Herbstrith, 86 quoting Stein Thomas von Aquin, I, Teil, 268, 86).
During those years at Speyer, Edith dedicated herself to a life of prayer, which for her, was the hidden but energizing power of her professional life and her many works of charity. Her public lectures saw the fruit of her prayer. Eventually however, she lost her teaching post because of her Jewry.
The Cologne Carmel, Kristallnacht, and the Carmel at Echt
In October, 1933, Edith asked to be received in the Carmelite monastery at Cologne and was accepted. Her family was crushed by the decision and utterly incapable of comprehending it. Her last day at home was a Jewish holiday, the Feast of Booths. She went to synagogue with her mother, and the next morning, left for Carmel. It opened its arms to her. At forty-two years of age, Edith came home.
On November 8, 1933, Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, as it is known, the Nazis intensified anti-Semitism. During this year, a large-scale offensive was enacted against the Jews, and thousands were forced to leave Germany. Edith suffered over those victimized by racial hatred, especially over her family and friends.
With the horror of Kristallnacht, all hope was virtually abandoned for the Jews to live in peace. “All through the night, Jewish citizens were rounded up, driven from their homes with billy clubs, and their businesses demolished or confiscated. In a matter of hours, their lives as members of German society had been destroyed. Even the synagogues had been burned (Herbstrith, 164). Germans and Jews alike now understood that any public outcry on their part would be met with ruthless and immediate punishment.
On New Year’s Eve 1938, Sr. Teresa, Blessed by the Cross, was transferred to the Dutch Carmel of Echt. Her needy sister Rosa joined her, but in two years later, the Nazis occupied Holland and rounded up all Jews, now forced to wear a yellow star. The Carmel in Switzerland offered her asylum, but there was no room for Rosa.
From Westerbrook to Auschwitz
In his journal dated July 30, 1942, Dr. William Harster, the Commanding Officer of Security Police and the Public Security Administration in charge of The Hague, wrote among other entries:
“Since the Catholic bishops have interfered in something that does not concern them, deportation of all Catholic Jews will be speeded up and completed within the coming week. No appeals for clemency shall be considered” (Herbstrith, 191).
On August 2, 1942, Sr. Teresa, her sister, and twelve hundred Jews were arrested and put on a train to Westerbrook, a transitional concentration camp in Holland.
“Come, Rosa, we’re going for our people,” she declared.
Early in the morning of August 7, Number 44074, Edith Theresia Hedwig Stein, and her sister Rosa were brought to Auschwitz, Poland. August 9 is the date assigned to their death in the gas chamber there. In 1979, a friend of Edith Stein, Father Johannes Hirschmanns, S.J. wrote that although Auschwitz remained a place stripped of love, it also revealed that the Cross was stronger than hate.
Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings … and Edith Stein’s
In 1938, even as Hitler’s threats engulfed Europe, Samuel Barber composed his Adagio for Strings. Full of pathos and evocative of tears, it is perhaps the most popular and most intense eight minutes of music of the twentieth century, music that echoes the trajectory of Edith’s life.
Its circular melody makes its reluctant but irrevocable ascent, steadily intensifying to a climax. Once there, the strings pierce and penetrate. Their shriek sends shivers up and down the spine. Abruptly cut off, the music yields to a tense silence … then dies away.