On August 9 every year, the church celebrates the ' martyrdom' of the Carmelite Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross ( Edith Stein) who was gassed at Auschwitz that day, seventy years ago. I put the term ' martyrdom' in quotations, since Edith Stein was murdered by the Nazis for being Jewish and only, secondarily, ( and out of spite!) for being Catholic. The Roman Catholic Bishops of the Netherlands ( as I recounted in my book, The Evolution of Dutch Catholicism, University of California Press, 1978) had publicly issued a pastoral letter denouncing the Nazi's Jewish policy of deportation and pogroms. Led by the intrepid Cardinal Johannes de Jong, the Dutch bishops had been warned that, if they proceeded to publish their denunciatory letter, the Nazi authorities would go after Jewish converts to Catholicism as well.
I had the pleasure about four years ago to see an opera based on Edith Stein's life, composed by Jonathan Gilbert and John Tarbet, at St. Peter's church in New York City. The opera did show some of the ambiguity of some Jewish groups to declaring Edith Stein a martyr for the Christian faith. There had also been a large dispute between Jews and some Catholics about the presence of a Carmelite monastery and a cross on the site of Auschwitz ( where Polish Catholics as well as Jews had been gassed!). Stein who eagerly embraced her Catholic conversion, never really fully cut herself off from her Jewish roots. She was born in Breslau on October 12, 1891, the youngest of eleven, as her Jewish family was celebrating Yom Kippur. Edith's mother ( widowed when Edith was only two) was a strongly devout Jew. Edith always deeply loved her mother, although as a young woman Edith abandoned any explicit practice of Judaism. " I consciously decided, of my own volition, to give up praying", Edith later said.
I have always hoped that the Catholic Church would declare Edith Stein a Doctor of the Church. She studied, first, at the University of Breslau where she was an active member of the Prussian Society for the Woman's Franchise. It would not hurt the church to have a feminist scholar among its doctors! In 1913, Edith transferred to Gottingen University where she became a teaching assistant to the renowned philosopher, Edmund Husserl. In Gottingen, Stein also met the philosopher Max Scheler who directed her attention to Roman Catholicism.
During World War I, Edith cut short her studies to serve as a field nurse in an Austrian field hospital, where she treated the sick in a typhus ward and worked in an operating theatre. In 1916, she followed Husserl to the University of Freiburg where she wrote her doctoral thesis on " The Problem of Empathy". During this period of study, she went to the Frankfurt Cathedral where she saw a woman with a shopping basket going to kneel for prayer. " This was something totally new to me. In the synagogues and Protestant Churches I had visited, people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot." In her doctoral dissertation she had written:" There have been people who believed that a sudden change had occurred within them and that this was a result of God's grace."
Stein had wanted to obtain a professorship but that was not possible in 1918 for a woman. Husserl, however, wrote for her the following reference:" Should academic careers be opened up to ladies, then I can recommend her whole-heartedly and as my first choice for admission to a professorship."
In 1921, while visiting a friend, Stein read the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila. She spent the whole night reading it and said later :" When I finished the book, I said to myself, This is the truth.". Later she said of her life; " My longing for truth was a single prayer." In 1922, Stein was baptized on the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus, when Jesus himself had entered God's covenant with Abraham. She reflected: " I had given up practicing my Jewish religion when I was a 14 year old girl and did not begin to feel Jewish again until I had returned to God." After her conversion, she taught at a teacher training college in Speyer and was encouraged by a Benedictine Abbot to accept extensive speaking engagements on women's issues. She translated the letters and diaries of Cardinal Newman and translated Thomas Aquinas' Questiones Disputate de Veritate ( On Truth).
In 1931, Stein left the convent school and devoted herself to getting a professorship. She wrote her main philosophical-theological work, Finite and Eternal Being. She was offered a position at the Institute for Educational Studies at the University of Munster in 1932. But in 1933, Hitler's Aryan law made it impossible for Stein to continue teaching. She noted: " I had heard of severe measures against Jews before. But now it dawned on me that God had laid his hand heavily on his people and that the destiny of those people would also be mine.". Stein, finally, entered the convent of the Carmelites in 1933. She went home, first, to visit her mother and went with her to the synagogue on The Feast of Tabernacles. Her mother died in 1936.
Stein saw continuities between her new Christian faith and Judaism. She once said: " I keep thinking of Queen Esther who was taken away from her people precisely because God wanted her to plead with the king on behalf of her nation. I am a very poor and powerless little Esther, but the King who has chosen me is infinitely great and merciful. This is a great comfort.". Because of the growing anti-Jewish strictures in Germany, Stein was smuggled across the border to the Netherlands to the Carmelite Convent in Echt. She made there her last will on June 9, 1939:" Even now I accept the death that God has prepared for me in complete submission and with joy as being his most holy will for me. I ask the Lord to accept my life and my death so that the Lord will be accepted by his people and his kingdom may come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world.". While in Echt, Stein finished her study of John of the Cross' mysticism, entitled: Kreuzeswissenschaft-- The Science of the Cross.
In retaliation to the Dutch Bishops' letter, the Gestapo came on August 2, 1942 to arrest Edith and her sister, Rosa, like Edith a convert to Catholicism.Edith's final words to Rosa before being deported were: " Come, we are going for our people.". A professor friend of Stein's said of her: " She is a witness to God's presence in a world where God is absent.". When he beatified Edith Stein in Cologne in 1987, John Paul II said the church was honoring " a daughter of Israel who, as a Catholic during Nazi persecution, remained faithful to the crucified Lord Jesus Christ and, as a Jew, to her people in loving faithfulness.". Surely, in honoring her, the church points to her clear bonds to the Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust.
Edith Stein had a prayer whis is apt: " Who are you, kindly light, who fill me now and brighten all the darkness of my heart ? You guide me forward like a mother's hand and, if you let me go, I could not take a single step alone. You are the space, embracing all my being, hidden in it and what name can contain you ? You, Holy Spirit, you, eternal love!"