A Biographical Sketch of Edith Stein

Edith Stein was a German Jew who converted to Roman Catholicism, entered a Discalced Carmelite order of nuns, was gassed at Auschwitz in 1942, and was canonized a saint in 1998.

Edith Stein (Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross OC), born in 1891, was the youngest child in a large Jewish family living in Breslau, Germany. She attended university and served as a volunteer nurse on the Russian front during World War I. What is known about her early life comes from her unfinished autobiography in which she chronicles her family with awesome recall. (Edith Stein, “Life in a Jewish Family:  An autobiography.” ICS Publications. Washington, DC.  1986.)  Brief sketches of family members as well as a chronological account of her life within the family are treated with honesty, describing failings as well as triumphs. The love in the family shines through every page.

At the university, she studied under Husserl, the founder of Phenomenology, one of the newest concepts in Philosophy. She wrote her doctoral dissertation in only two years. Husserl considered Edith his most promising student; but the academic appointment she had expected and he had led her to believe she would receive went to a fellow student, a Christian male named Heidegger. Instead, Husserl hired Edith to be his assistant which meant she was essentially a glorified secretary. A magnificent intellect was wasted simply because she was a woman and a Jew.

In order to support herself, she taught at a Catholic girls’ school until she entered a Discalced Carmelite convent in Cologne, Germany. When the persecution of Jews began in Germany, her order sent her to another Carmelite convent in the Netherlands where her superiors felt she might be safe. When Germany invaded the Netherlands, Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Edith and her sister Rosa were among those taken.

There is a story that a young man was standing at a railway trestle in Breslau when a cattle car stopped. The doors to the cars were opened to reveal people packed in. The stench was horrific. A Carmelite nun moved to the opening in the car saying, “This is the last time I will see my beloved Breslau.” Edith Stein was never seen or heard from again. Speculation has it that she was immediately taken to the gas chambers where she died and was cremated. The young man, when shown a picture of Edith Stein, confirmed that she was the nun he had seen in that cattle car.

In her autobiography, Edith describes a few experiences she had that lead her from Judaism to Catholicism. She tells of one incident that affected her very powerfully. She was visiting a church as a tourist when she saw an old woman enter, genuflect, then go down on her knees to pray. This was the first time Edith had seen anyone pray in an empty church or outside formal services. It lead her to question what made this church so special that someone would come in to pray alone.

After this experience, she spent all night reading the autobiography of Teresa of Avila. Although this was the beginning of her conversion experience we know little about it or her decision to enter a Carmelite convent. Whether this apparent reticence signified a desire to keep her spiritual life private or because she never had the time to detail what had happened to her, we will never know.

Edith Stein was a remarkable woman. In a time when women were expected to be homemakers and not academics, she was an academic. In a country where to be a woman or a Jew meant there was a glass ceiling for almost any academic position, she was both a woman and a Jew.

Most American academics (and even phenomenologists) may never have heard of Edith Stein simply because her work is in German. Only recently (since the 1980’s) has the Institute for Carmelite Studies translated some of her works into English. Her doctoral dissertation on “Empathy” is yet to be translated. She is, however, well regarded and well-read in Europe.

In the Collected works of Edith Stein, translated into English and published by the Institute of Carmelite Studies, the first volume is her unfinished autobiography, “Life in a Jewish Family 1891-1916.”  (ICS Publications. Washington, DC.  1986).

The second volume of her translated works is “Edith Stein: Essays on Woman” (ICS Publications. Washington, DC. 1987), is a collection of her published articles as well as unpublished speeches.

The third volume is a collection of papers given at an Edith Stein symposium (John Sullivan, Editor. “Edith Stein Symposium: Teresian Culture.” ICS Publications. Washington, DC. 1987). The first section includes biographical papers on Stein. The second section is on the Carmelite order and the third section is on themes derived from the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila. The final section of the book covers Pope John Paul II’s comments about Edith Stein at her formal beatification ceremonies in Cologne.

Edith Stein lived her life being discriminated against because of her gender and her religion. She died for her natal religion despite having been converted to Catholicism. She lived under an unjust political system. Despite these persecutions, or perhaps because of them, she developed a great spirituality. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1998 and was named a co-Patron Saint of Europe.

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