Edith Stein Discovered / Edith Stein and Companions

Edith Stein Discovered / Edith Stein and Companions

Terri Kelleher

Shedding light on one of the 20th century's most inspirational martyrs

by Pat Lyne OCDS
(Gracewing, 2000, 91pp, $22.00, ISBN: 978-0-85244-505-9. Available from Freedom Publishing)

On the way to Auschwitz
 by Fr Paul Hamans
(Ignatius Press, 2010, 285pp, $33.90, ISBN: 978–1–58617–336-4. Available from Freedom Publishing)

Edith Stein Discovered is, as its sub-title indicates, a personal portrait. It aims to answer, as far as can be discovered, the question: "Who was Edith Stein"?

Sr Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, an enclosed Carmelite nun, was taken from her convent at Echt in Holland at 5pm on Sunday, 2 August 1942, to Auschwitz at which place she died on 9 August 1942 by gassing, her body cremated and her ashes thrown into a common ditch with others who perished on the same day. Who was this person so summarily disposed of that August day?

Edith Stein (Sr Benedicta's given name), the seventh child of Siegfried Stein and Auguste Courant, was born on 12 October 1891 in Breslau in what is now modern Poland. At that time it was part of Germany. She was the youngest and favourite child of her devout, orthodox Jewish mother. A precocious child she started school early. She loved learning and very quickly understood that real learning is searching for the truth, which she did for the rest of her life.


Two things in particular stood out about her childhood. First that she understood from an early age that it is better to be good than to be clever. The author's comment on this was that she "was, after all, her mother's daughter." And this is the second thing that stood out about her childhood - that her mother prayed, that she really believed in God.

This holy Jewish mother gave her daughter the precious gift of faith and Edith, true child of her mother, used that gift to its logical conclusion in her desire for union with God. And that despite the pain it caused, especially to her beloved mother who saw her favourite child as lost to Judaism.

While staying with her devout Lutheran friend, Hedwig (Hatti) Conrad-Martius in December 1921, Edith picked up a copy of St Teresa of Avila's book of her life and read it in one sitting declaring "Das ist die Wahrheit" (That is the Truth).

Like St Paul and all the saints over the centuries she had seen in St Teresa's faith and absolute trust in her Saviour the face of Christ. On New Year's Day 1922 she was baptised "Teresa Hedwig" after her best friends, St Teresa and Hatti, who was her Godmother. Edith was 30 years old and it would be another 12 years before, on 14 October 1933, she entered the Carmel of Cologne.

She had been attracted to the religious life from the time she was received into the Church but her spiritual directors advised against it until she had lived for a sufficient time as a Catholic. During that time she came in contact with the other major influence on her spirituality, the Benedictine tradition. She made regular visits to the Benedictine Abbey at Beuron in the upper valley of the Danube.

It was her custom to arrive in time to commence a private retreat from Palm Sunday in preparation for Easter, during which time she did not write letters (she was otherwise a prodigious letter writer), or converse. "This time was given entirely to her Lord and Heavenly master to accompany Him step by step throughout His Passion was her choice and privilege."

Edith was a child of the Day of Atonement, which she reminds readers in her work Prayer of the Church is the Old Testament antecedent of Good Friday. Thus she witnessed her devotion to the Cross - so what other name in religion could she take than Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross?

A perfect companion volume to this biography is Edith Stein and Companions: On the Way to Auschwitz which is based on the book Getuigen voor Christus by Fr Paul Hamans, published in 2008 in the Netherlands.

Fr Hamans, an expert on the 20th century Dutch martyrs, has compiled biographies of not only Edith Stein and her sister Rosa but of 24 other Jewish Catholic converts, including six religious sisters and four male religious (five of them from the one family) who were taken by the Nazis from their convents, monasteries and homes on that same fateful day, 2 August 1942, and taken to Auschwitz where they were murdered.


Of the hundreds arrested across Holland that day, 113 Jewish Catholics died in Auschwitz. The 24 whose stories are told in this volume are those whose journeys could be pieced together from letters that they managed to write to family or friends or from the evidence of those who saw what happened. Edith Stein is the best known and only one to date who has been canonised.

Fr Hamans' opinion is that all of them were martyrs for the Faith. They were all arrested and sent to Auschwitz because of the pastoral letter read out in every Catholic parish in Holland on 26 July 1942 protesting the Nazi treatment, in particular the deportations, of the Jews. In letters to friends and family and to bishops they wrote that their SS captors/guards told them clearly they had been arrested because of the pastoral letter.

But further than that, these courageous people expressed their support for the bishops' action and their willingness to suffer, even to death, rather than protest that such action should not have been taken. They expressed their willingness to accept their cross, as Christ accepted His, out of love for their fellow Jews who were suffering terribly and for whom the Church had spoken out. Hence for this reason Fr Hamans argues that they are martyrs for the Faith.

I found these biographies absorbing and they aroused my deepest admiration and affection for these exemplary brothers and sisters in Christ. After the bloodshed I hope they have been clothed in the white robes of the martyrs and that we see more of them raised to the ranks of canonised saints.

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