Blessed Edith Stein (1891-1942): The most significant German woman this century

Blessed Edith Stein (1891-1942): The most significant German woman this century

Mary O'Neill

Edith Stein, beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1987, was a Jewish convert to Catholicism and one of the better-known victims of the World War II Nazi Holocaust. Today, her extensive writings (see book review p. 16) have gained widespread recognition. When the Dutch Hierarchy spoke out against Nazi persecution of the Jews in Holland in 1942, the German authorities retaliated by sending Jewish Catholics, previously spared, including Edith Stein, to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, a response often overlooked by those who criticise Pope Pius XII failing to be more publicly outspoken in condemning Hitler's 'final solution.'

Mary O'Neill is a New Zealand Journalist and pro-life activist.

Edith Stein has been called "the most significant German woman of this century." Born into a Jewish family in eastern Germany on 12 October 1891, she became an outstanding student and teacher of philosophy with a brilliance and a clarity in her thought and writings which shines through collections of her works more than 50 years after her death in a Nazi gas chamber.

The eleventh child of Siegfried and Augusta Stein, Edith was only 20 months old when her father died. He owned a timber mill and she remembered seeing him carried home to their house, dying of heat stroke. Frau Stein continued the work of the mill, while remaining at the heart of her lively and loving family.

Later, in her writings on the vocation of women, Edith would recall her childhood and the impact of her mother's example: "At our house there was no question of principles of education - we simply read the open book of our mother's heart to know how we should behave."

Edith learned a lot from her older brothers and sisters. The family loved literature and poetry, and her sister Else recalled: "I can still see her as she used to sit beside the large table at which her sisters and their friends used to hold poetry competitions. Every now and again they would shoo her away for butting in, 'You can't join in, little Edith, you can't read yet!' But why did she need to? While the rest of them were puzzling out the answer, she would reel it off by heart."

When Edith was 21 she went to the University of Gottingen. One of the first women to enter a German university, she became a vital member of the Philosophy School which was breaking new ground under Prof Edmund Husserl.

In her teenage years Edith had stopped practising her Jewish religion. At university many of her friends were Christians and Edith was indelibly struck by the faith of a young wife, Anna Reinach, when her husband Adolf (one of the philosophy lecturers) was killed during the war in 1917. "This was my first encounter with the Cross," she later wrote, "and the divine power which is shared with its servants ... Christ began to shine for me, Christ in the mystery of his death."

Edith had suffered doubts about the existence of God in the face of evil, and tells how she was freed from the pain of this doubt by attending a concert of Bach which brought her joy and restored her hope.

Her best friend at the Philosophy School was Hedwige Martius who married another student, Theodor Conrad, and went to live on a farm at Bergzabern. Hedwige and her husband adopted a baby and worked the land which was planted with fruit trees. Edith used to work with Hedwige, sharing her life of poverty and hard work.

Always reserved, Edith was at this time intensely quiet. Hedwige recalled: "It was as if we were both walking on a narrow mountain ridge, aware that God's call was imminent."

One night, in the summer of 1921, Edith was left alone in the house and picked up an autobiography of St Teresa of Avila, translated into German. As she began to read, she became "captivated and could not stop until she had finished it." As she closed the book at dawn next morning, she observed, "This is the truth." She walked into town to buy a missal and a Catholic catechism and began a study the faith. On New Year's Day 1922, she was baptised, with the Bergzabern church register noting that she was 30 years old.

Peace of soul

Her friends recalled that after her entry into the Church Edith was radiant with joy, having gained a peace of soul which gave her a serenity she was never to lose. Even the terrors of the 1930s and the menace of Nazism could not shake this peace, though her face witnessed to her deep suffering for the fate of her people.

From the time of her conversion, Edith had a desire to enter a Carmel as a contemplative sister. But the pain which this would cause her mother, and the advice of her spiritual director that her work was necessary in the world, made Edith postpone this step. Instead, she went to Speyer to teach at St Magdalene's School, run by the Dominican Sisters, where she remained from Easter 1923 until Easter 1931, sharing the Sisters' life of poverty and prayer.

Edith began to study St Thomas Aquinas and translated his De Veritate into German. It was at this time that she began to formulate her ideas on the vocation of women. Women at the time were beginning to leave their homes to join the workforce and there was much discussion on the matter. Edith could see the daily lives of women changing and she asked herself: "What is the nature of a woman?" "Who is she in her heart and mind?" "What is her true vocation?"

Edith borrowed from St Thomas the concept of God's image as a seed planted in the human soul. To grow, the seed needs the supernatural aid of grace and the natural help of education.

Women tend to embrace "the living and the personal" rather than "the objective," Edith wrote. "The emotions have been seen as the centre of woman's soul. For that reason, emotional formation will have to be centrally placed in the education of girls."

Edith believed that the relationship of soul and body is not completely identical in men and women. "Woman's soul is present and lives more intensely in all parts of the body, and is inwardly affected by that which happens to the body; whereas, with men, the body has more pronouncedly the character of an instrument which serves them in their work and which is accompanied by a certain detachment ... The deepest feminine yearning is to achieve a loving union, while a man's essential desires reveal themselves in action, work and objective achievements."

Whiles a man dedicates himself easily and objectively to a certain work, often at the expense of his humanity, a woman's attitude always includes the personal. She is emotion-centred and possesses a natural power of empathy which she brings to all she does.

Throughout Edith's work, holiness is defined as the primary human vocation. Surrender to the divine life in the soul is the pre-requisite for full development of both men and women. The life of prayer depends on self-surrender to God.

Denial of humanity

Edith saw faithfulness as part of the sacredness of a woman. The Catholic theology of marriage was a safeguard of woman's intrinsic value as a helpmate for man in an enduring, indissoluble union, to rear children as citizens of God's kingdom: "To win children for heaven - to awaken divine sparks in a child's heart. Grace in the child is like a hidden little flame which must be painstakingly tended and nursed."

Edith was living amidst the denial of humanity under the harsh Nazi regime and was among the first to realise the ravages which it would wreak on her beloved homeland, even to the extent of sending an entreaty to Pope Pius XI in 1933. She could have escaped from Germany and the persecution which she foresaw and did think of working in London in November 1932, while in April 1933 a chance came to go to Argentina where one of her brothers lived.

Instead, Edith decided to enter the Carmel, something she had desired since her conversion in 1922. And being prevented by Nazi laws from working, she thought her mother would prefer her to be in a convent in Germany, rather than away in South America. She prayed for 13 hours before a picture of Our Lady of Sorrows in a church at Munster in reaching her decision. She wanted her life to be a sharing in the passion of Christ, for she saw that a passion lay ahead for her own people, and being a Jewess, wanted to suffer for them, and like Queen Esther, to plead to God on their behalf.

Edith's name in the Carmel of Cologne, which she entered on 14 October 1933, was Sr Teresia Benedicta a Cruce (Teresa Blessed by the Cross). There she felt at home with her happiness reflected in the jokes and laughter which the other Sisters recalled of her in times of recreation. Her intellectual work was allowed to continue, and included an account of her childhood, Life in a Jewish Family, written in honour of her mother, and to express her own consciousness of what it was to be Jewish, which was not published at the time - non-Aryan writings being forbidden publication under the Nazis.

Edith included her enemies amongst those in need of her prayers. Edith wrote from the Carmel in Holland where she fled in 1938 as the Nazi attacks on Jews grew more fierce: "The divinest of all divine work is to co-operate with God in the salvation of souls. Holy souls who are determined to confidently maintain a courageous love for their enemies have experienced that they have the freedom to so love."

On Passion Sunday 1939, Edith wrote to her Prioress: "Dear Mother, I beg your Reverence's permission to offer myself to the Heart of Jesus as a sacrificial expiation for the sake of true peace ... l am asking this today because it is already the twelfth hour. I know that I am nothing, but Jesus wills it, and He will call many more to the same sacrifice in these days."

In 1941, with a dramatic upsurge in deportations from Holland into the Reich, Edith tried unsuccessfully to transfer to a Carmel in Switzerland or Spain (she had earlier wanted to go to a Carmelite monastery in Palestine, but travel was disallowed). Ultimately, of all her large family, only one sister in New York and another in Colombia survived the Holocaust.

On a fateful Sunday, 26 July 1942, a pastoral letter protesting strongly against deportations and other discriminatory measures against the Jews was read out in all Catholic churches in Holland. The Catholic bishops and leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church had joined to protest to the Nazi rulers in Holland, declaring that the treatment of the Jews "offends the deeply-held moral convictions of the Netherlands people, and above all God's commandments for justice and mercy."

The Nazis responded promptly by rounding up all Christian Jews. On the evening of Sunday, 2 August, Edith and her sister Rosa (who was living with the Sisters after also becoming a Catholic) were hauled into the street and taken in a van filled with other Dutch Jews to a detention camp. While there Edith cared for the children of mothers too traumatised to look after their young ones. Five days later, on the night of 7 August, the Stein sisters, along with a thousand Dutch Catholic Jews, were herded into railway wagons bound for death camps in Poland.

The precise details of Edith's fate remain unclear. After the war the Carmelite Sisters tried to gather scraps of information. Stories came to them, fragments of sightings, such as the message from a former pupil of the Dominican Sisters in Speyer. Standing on a railway station one day she heard someone calling her by her maiden name. "Turning around, I saw the silhouette of my former teacher at the doorway of a sealed carriage. She said: 'Please greet the Sisters at Speyer, and tell them I am on my way to the East '." And an apparent last word from Edith in a tiny pencilled note to a friend, a Sister in Freiburg: "Greetings from the journey to Poland. Sister Teresia Benedicta."

Beatification

That summer of 1942, two farm cottages were being used for gassing Jews in the village of Birkenau, named for its beautiful birch trees. A guard later wrote: "Nobody could have thought it credible that in those insignificant little houses as many people had perished as would have filled a city." It was there that Edith and her sister Rosa, along with 262 other Jews, died on 9 August 1942.

More than a half century later, Edith's fame as an outstanding 20th century Catholic thinker lives on in her writings. Published in German after the war, five volumes of Edith's work have since been translated into English. Some of her manuscripts were rescued at the end of the war from the ruins of a convent and today her writings can be found in archives in Cologne and in Belgium. Since her beatification in May 1987, she has been recognised as Blessed Edith Stein.

Postscript: This article provides but a fragment of Edith Stein's whole story. Among the sources for its quotations, the following are recommended:

  • Edith Stein by Sr Teresia de Spiritu Sancto, prioress of the Carmel of Cologne, Sheed Ward, 1952.
  • Edith Stein, 1891-1942 par une moniale Francaise, Editions de Seuil, 1954.
  • Edith Stein: Scholar, Feminist, Saint by Freda Mary Oben, Alba House, New York, 1988.
  • Essays on Woman, Vol. 2 of the Collected Works of Edith Stein, ICS Publications, Washington D.C., 1987.

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