SR THÉRÈSE MARIE FROST recounts the life of Sr Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, better known as St Edith Stein, the brilliant Jewess who perished in Auschwitz and is now one of the heavenly Patrons of Europe
Edith was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) on 12 October 1891. She was the youngest child of Auguste and Siegfried Stein. The family were Jewish and Edith was always special to her mother because she was born on the Day of Atonement, the most solemn of Jewish Holy Days. Edith’s father ran a lumber business but, sadly, he died before she was two. After his death, her mother took on the business and made a great success of it.
When she was still very young Edith’s older brothers and sisters often recited poetry to her and even read to her from serious literature. As she had a quick mind Edith absorbed much knowledge at a very early age and when her older sister Erna began school she wanted to go too. Thinking Kindergarten beneath her, Edith begged an older sister to arrange for her to start school on her sixth birthday. She did so and Edith had soon surpassed the others in her class. She always had a great thirst for knowledge so she surprised everyone when she announced that she was leaving school at the age of fourteen. She went to stay with a married sister to help with the housework and the children and while she was there, she decided quite deliberately to stop praying.
Domestic life did not really appeal to Edith and it wasn’t long before she decided to return to school. She had already begun her search for truth and when the time came for her to leave school, she decided to pursue her search at university. Edith initially went to Breslau University to study psychology, then in its infancy. She hoped it would reveal the meaning of life to her but she was disappointed; instead, she discovered a new discipline that of phenomenology, recently developed by Edmund Husserl, a professor at the University of Göttingen. Fascinated by this subject Edith enrolled for the summer course on Philosophy at Göttingen.
Most of the philosophy students were Jews who had converted to Christianity, so this brought the issue of faith to the fore. The First Word War interrupted Edith’s studies and she volunteered to work with the Red Cross. After a short training, she nursed in a field hospital in Austria. Edith then worked as Husserl’s assistant in the University of Freiburg and, in 1917, she was awarded her Doctorate with the highest honours for her dissertation on ‘The Problem of Empathy’.
Edith had a number of experiences that led her to seek seriously for the truth in the area of faith. She had been deeply impressed on a visit to the Catholic Cathedral at Frankfurt when she saw a woman with a market basket go into a pew to pray quietly. It seemed to Edith that this woman had interrupted her shopping to have an intimate conversation with God. The faith of Anna Reinach, a Lutheran Christian, also made a deep impact on Edith. He husband Adolph, a renowned philosopher and friend of Edith’s was killed in action, and Edith went to help Anna sort his papers. She expected to find a distraught widow. Instead, she found a strong and courageous woman who had accepted her sufferings, acknowledging that she was upheld by the power of the Cross.
Edith was strongly drawn to Christianity but unable to decide whether to look more deeply into the Catholic or Lutheran faith. The summer of 1921 marked a turning point in Edith’s life. The decisive moment came when she was staying with friends. While the couple were out one evening, Edith began to read the Life of Teresa of Avila. She was completely captivated by it and read until she finished the book at dawn the next morning. Here she found the truth in the person of Christ, and she resolved to enter the Catholic Church and become a Carmelite. On New Year’s Day 1922, she was baptised but she had to wait to enter Carmel. For the next ten years, she taught at St Magdalene’s Dominican Institute in Speyer and during that time she developed a deep relationship with God. Her room became a centre for exploration into the truth, where she welcomed her students and friends. She became a popular lecturer in Germany and beyond especially on the subject of women’s education. In 1932, she left St Magdalene’s to teach in Münster at the German Institute of Scientific Pedagogy, but due to Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws she was dismissed from her post the next year. This was providential for Edith as it left her free to enter Carmel, which she had desired for so long. Up to this time, her advisors felt that she had too much to offer the Church as a laywoman.
In April 1933, Edith went to a Holy Hour at Cologne Carmel. Writing about this later she said, ‘I talked with the Saviour and told him that I knew it was His Cross that was being placed upon the Jewish people; that most of them did not understand this, but that those who did, would have to take it up willingly in the name of all. I would do that’.
Edith entered the Carmel of Cologne in October 1933. She was allowed to take the religious name she chose herself, Sr Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. It was very difficult for Edith to tell her family of her call and her mother never became reconciled to it, which brought suffering to them both.
As the persecution of the Jews in Germany increased, Edith became aware that her presence in Carmel could endanger the whole community. In order to protect her sisters, as well as for her own safety she transferred to the Carmel of Echt in Holland at the end of 1938. When the Germans invaded Holland bringing their anti-Semitic laws, Edith began to negotiate a possible transfer to Switzerland, but in retaliation for a letter by the Dutch Bishops, which denounced the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews, they ordered the arrest and deportation of all Jewish born Catholics. Edith was taken from her Carmel on 2 August 1942, together with her sister Rosa, who had followed her into the Catholic faith after the death of their mother. She had become a Carmelite tertiary and was working as an extern helper at Echt Carmel. Rosa was very fearful and disorientated at the time of their arrest but Edith took her by the hand, encouraging her with the words, ‘Come Rosa, we are going for our people’. Edith knew that God had accepted her offering.
Witnesses from the camps of Amersfoort and Westerbork testify to Edith’s calm demeanour and the love and care she showed towards the other prisoners, especially the children. Edith lived out what she had written in a letter to her friend Sr Agnella Stadtmüller OP. ‘Perfect love will be our eternal life, and here we have to seek to come as close to it as possible.’
The train, which carried Edith to her death, arrived in Auschwitz on 9 August. Two hundred and sixty-four of the prisoners, including Edith and her sister Rosa, were taken straight to a white farm cottage where they were gassed with Zyklin B. They did not even go into the camp. It took some time for the community to discover what had happened to the two sisters but eventually the Red Cross was able to confirm that they had both died on 9 August 1942.
Edith was canonised, as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, by Pope John Paul II on 11 October 1998 and, on 1 October 1999, he made her one of the co-patrons of Europe.