Edith Stein was born on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, 12 October 1891, in Breslau, Silesia, (now Wroclaw, Poland). She was the youngest of 11 children in a devout Jewish family. When she was not yet two years old her father died suddenly, leaving Edith’s mother to raise the seven remaining children (four had died in childhood) and to manage the family business. Brought up on the Psalms and Proverbs, Edith considered her mother a living example of the strong woman of Proverbs 31. However, by her teenage years, Stein had lost her Jewish faith and regarded herself an atheist, although she continued to respect her mother’s total openness to God.
One of the first women to do university studies in Germany, Edith moved from the University of Breslau to the University of Gottingen in order to study under Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. It was her study of philosophy which led her to acknowledge the existence of a transcendent reality. Under the influence of friends who had discovered Christianity, her atheism began to falter.
During the summer of 1921, at the age of 29, while on holidays with friends, she found herself alone one evening. Apparently by chance, she happened on the autobiography of St Teresa of Avila, the founder of the reformed Carmelites, and read it in one sitting. The effect of the book was to convince her that truth was with Christianity and the next day she went out to buy a missal and a catechism.
She was baptized on 1 January 1922 and gave up her assistantship with Husserl to teach at a Dominican girls’ school in Speyer from 1922 to 1932. Her spiritual directors knew that her conversion to Christianity and her seclusion in a contemplative order would be a double blow to her devout Jewish mother. At the same time, they knew the Church could benefit from her ability as a writer and speaker, which would be excluded within the walls of an enclosed convent. In fact, she did become a significant voice in the Catholic Woman’s Movement in Germany. When Hitler rose to power in 1933, Edith was already well known in German academic circles.
With the growing persecution of the Jewish community, she wrote a letter to Pope Pius XI denouncing the Nazi regime and asked the Pope openly to condemn the regime, “to put a stop to this abuse of Christ’s name”. However, for various reasons, her request did not materialise.
By March of 1933, her colleagues at the Educational Institute in Muenster, aware that they could no longer protect her, offered her a teaching position in South America. However, if she accepted, she would not see her 84-year-old mother again, so she felt it was now time for her to enter the convent. In that same year, she was deeply moved by a homily she heard during a Holy Thursday service at the Carmelite convent in Cologne. She decided that as someone who understood that a cross was being placed on the Jewish people, she wanted to take it up in their name. But she did not yet know what carrying the cross would entail.
So, on 15 October, the feast of St Teresa of Avila and just after her 42nd birthday, Edith entered the Carmel of Cologne and took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Her family, and especially her mother, felt it was a betrayal of her people just at a time when persecution of the Jews was being intensified by what they regarded as Christian oppressors (although Nazism was atheistic). They wondered how she could do such a thing, how she could believe in a man who could call himself God. Yet, after the mother’s death in 1936, Edith’s sister Rosa also became a Catholic.
Edith stayed in Cologne for five years, happy in her vocation and still engaged in her scholarly studies. However, after the terrible Kristallnacht of 9 November 1938, there were fears for Edith’s safety and she was sent secretly to a Carmelite convent in Echt in The Netherlands. Her converted sister Rosa joined her there as a Third Order Carmelite, serving as the convent portress. When Holland was overrun by the Nazis, there was a plan to move the two sisters to Switzerland. However, before this could be done, a strongly worded encyclical from the Dutch bishops on 20 July 1942 against anti-Semitism resulted in all convert Jews being arrested to be sent to the death camps.
Edith and Rosa Stein were arrested on 2 August 1942. As they were led away, Edith said to her sister: “Come, Rosa. We go for
our people.” The sisters were brought to Auschwitz and died in the gas chambers only a week later. Edith Stein was just 50 years old. During those final days, Edith showed great inner strength and gave encouragement to her fellow prisoners and even helped look after small children when their mothers were too distressed to do so. One woman who survived the war wrote: “Every time I think of her sitting in the barracks, the same picture comes to mind: a Pieta without the Christ.” Like her Master, she died with him and like him for her people and for their persecutors.
She was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 1 May 1987 and canonised as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (her Carmelite given name) on 11 October 1998. She is also one of the five Patrons of Europe.