Born in 1891 into an observant Jewish family, Edith Stein was the youngest of eleven children. Her father died an early death. While Edith admired her mother’s piety, she followed her own insights.
At a time when few women did graduate studies, Edith earned a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Freiburg. But in the course of her studies, she lost her Jewish faith as well as belief in the existence of the soul. However, two of her mentors influenced her thinking: Edmund Husserl (d 1938) and Max Scheler (d 1928), both born Jews and both converts to Christianity. Edith was deeply affected by their convictions, but her long, lonely struggle was just about to begin.
Truth can reveal itself through the witness of other people, and this is what happened to Edith Stein in two instances, and both changed her life. The first happened in 1917. After Edith’s colleague and friend, Adolf Reinach was killed in World War I, she received an invitation to the Reinach home to organize his papers. Edith met his widow, Frau Reinach who was suffering deeply from the loss of her husband, but despite the woman’s anguish, Edith saw in her face hope and joy. As Edith remained with Frau Reinach for a time, her rational arguments against the existence of God began to crumble in the face of the mystery of the cross. Thus began her journey from atheism to belief. Still, the road to the Catholic faith remained at a distance.
The second occurrence happened while Edith was visiting at a friend’s home. In the library, she came across the autobiography of the great Carmelite reformer, St. Teresa of Avila. After staying up almost the entire night, enthralled by the narrative, she put down the book and said to herself, “This is the truth.” At that point, Edith realized that for the first time in her life, she could see.
Edith bought a catechism and a missal, studied them both, and went to her first Mass. Shortly after, she asked the pastor to baptize her. The priest knew of her academic background. He encouraged her to read St. Thomas Aquinas’ treatise on truth (De Veritate) 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 baptized. Her mother wept with sadness. Edith could not intensify the blow by announcing at the same time that she wanted to become a cloistered nun. Instead, she embraced the teaching apostolate.
In Speyer, Edith took a position at a secondary school conducted by the Dominican sisters. There she won the hearts of the teachers and students alike. In addition to teaching, she lectured widely about women to women. On one occasion, speaking to them, she reflected aloud, “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 that she should follow. Thomas’ works served not only as a path to truth but also as an ordered way to personal experience of God. For Aquinas, there is a unity between the thinking person and the person who contemplates and loves. Eventually, Edith lost her teaching post because she was a Jew.
The Cologne Carmel, Kristallnacht, and the Carmel at Echt
In October, 1933, at age forty-two, Edith was received in the Carmelite monastery at Cologne. Her mother was crushed by the decision and utterly incapable of comprehending it.
One month later, on Kristallnacht, on “the night of broken glass,” the Nazis intensified their anti-Semitism. During this year, a large-scale offensive was enacted against the Jews, and thousands were forced to leave Germany.
With the horror of Kristallnacht, all hope was virtually abandoned for the Jews to live in peace. Throughout the night, Jewish citizens were rounded up, driven from their homes, and their businesses were demolished or confiscated. Broken glass was everywhere. In a matter of a few hours, their lives as members of German society were destroyed. Even the synagogues were been burned. It was clear to Germans and Jews alike that any public outcry would be intensified with ruthless and immediate punishment by the Nazis.
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On New Year’s Eve 1938, Sr. Teresa and her sister Rosa, an extern sister, were transferred to the Dutch Carmel of Echt. For two years, they lived in relative peace. But when the Dutch bishops issued a pastoral letter protesting the deportation of the Jews and the expulsion of Jewish children from the Catholic school system, the Nazis invaded Holland and arrested all Catholics of Jewish extraction in the country. They were forced to wear a yellow star on their person. Though the Carmel in Switzerland offered asylum to Sr. Teresa, there was no room for Rosa.
In his journal dated July 30th, 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” (Waltraud Herbstrith, Edith Stein, 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 7th, Number 44074, Edith Stein, and her sister Rosa were brought to Auschwitz, Poland. August 9th is the date recorded for their death in the gas chamber there. Sr. Teresa, Blessed by the Cross was canonized a saint of the Church on October 11th, 1998.
Adagio for Strings