Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Edith Stein

by Gino Concetti


Gino Concetti summarizes Marina Vittoria Borghese's work on Edith Stein, whose formal decree of canonization was published February 16, 1998 in Acta Apolostica Sedis, the official record of actions of the Holy See.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano



Publisher & Date

Vatican, April 27, 1987

The atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews included a famous victim: Edith Stein, sacrificed in one of the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1942.

Edith was born at Breslau (Wroclaw) on 12 October 1891, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In Edith Stein, Dalla Cattedra at lager ("From the Lecture Hall to the Concentration Camp", published by Edizioni Messaggero, Padua), Marina Vittoria Borghese portrays her whole life, with particular attention to her immolation because of Hitler's anti-Semitism.

The symptoms of anti-Semitism were already seen in 1881. A meeting was organized in Berlin, during which slogans were launched in favour of depriving the Jews of their civil rights. The manifestations did not take place only in Germany: in Russia too, processions were formed, crying, "Death to the Jews". Edith was a Jew, like her family.

Her father died in 1893. On 12 October 1897, she asked to go to school, and received permission. In 1908. she enrolled at the grammar school in Breslau. In 1911, she matriculated at the faculty of philosophy in the local university. In 1913, she transferred to Gottingen, in order to follow the courses of Edmund Husserl. Husserl too was a Jew, and had shown his exceptional abilities in mathematics and the sciences. Born on 8 April 1859 at Prosnitz in Moravia, he had attended the University of Leipzig, and then went to the University of Berlin, having already published works of outstanding value. Later, he went to Vienna, where he had great religious crisis and converted to Christianity. From 1901, he was at the head of the faculty of philosophy in Gottingen, and he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for philosophy. Borghese writes that his school was more cenacle than school. Edith chose Gottingen in order to follow the man who was rightly held to be "the greatest living philosopher".

At Gottingen, Edith lived the normal university life: study, conversations, contemplations, excursions. But gradually, as the days went by and she lived her life, she underwent a transformation. Borghese writes: "The face of God became faded in Edith's memory. Her religious practices stopped. The crisis did not bring her into opposition to God. in whom she never disbelieved. but she lived without God, she forgot him voluntarily, she deliberately disobeyed the urgent exhortations of her mother".

Although she was admitted into Husserl's cenacle, Edith did not agree with the master when he published his Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology. In order to take her out of her state of depression, her friends invited her to a lecture by Max Scheler, who was likewise a convert from Judaism and was constantly entranced by the beauty of the Catholic faith. Edith now forgot her mealtimes, nourishing herself on ideas and hopes; she was more concerned for the spirit than for the body.

On 3 August 1916, she took her doctorate with the highest marks. She dealt with the problem of Einfuhlung. In the meantime, the war was raging, with hundreds of thousands of casualties on all the battle fronts, causing Edith untold suffering. Husserl went to Freiburg, and wanted Edith to follow him as his assistant. She was not satisfied by fame in the university world. "I have not found the key to my existence", she wrote, "at any rate, what I have done has not been able to make me feel that I am in my proper place in the world". Among the victims of the war was also her friend Adolf Reinach, the one who had introduced her to Husserl. Edith set out on the journey to console his widow. This was her first meeting with the Cross. Borghese writes: "For the first time, Edith could contemplate, in all its luminous reality, the Church born from the passion of Christ that saves and redeems". And she goes on: "in that instant, her incredulity crumbled, her Judaism faded away, and Christ rose in his radiance before her eyes: Christ in the mystery of the cross".

While she was staying with Pauline, Edith discovered another truth: "the mission of woman in the redemption of the pain that afflicts the world". She expressed it thus: "Woman's mission is to protect life, to keep families united. It cannot be irrelevant to her whether or not the life of others, the life of the peoples, takes a direction that ensures serenity and prosperity for the families and a sure future for the young".

Meanwhile, her studies continued. In 1922, she published two books: Psychic Causality and Individual and Community. The problem of faith became ever more urgent in Edith, but she was slow to accept it. She wrote: "I refuse my adherence to this authentic and living faith, and I do not permit it to become active in me". In the summer of 1921, she visited Conrad-Martius. By chance, she found the autobiography of Teresa of Avila in the library, read it at once and was overwhelmed by it. When her friends returned, she confessed to them that she had finally found the truth. Her conversion had practically taken place. She went to church, heard Mass and asked the priest to be baptized at once. The date was fixed for the beginning of the following year, and Edith received baptism and became a member of the Catholic Church on 1 January 1922. When she told her mother of this, she burst into tears. Edith went to Dr Schwind, canon of the Cathedral of Speyer, who became her spiritual father. Through his intervention, she became professor of the German language and literature at the teacher training college. While she taught, she occupied her free time in translating the works of St Thomas Aquinas. She spent seven years at the Institute of St Mary Magdalene in Speyer.

Father Przywara organized a cycle of lectures for her in almost all the cities of Germany, Austria and Poland. In 1922, she was named professor at the Higher Pedagogical Institute in Munster. She stayed at the Marianum and at once was on friendly terms with the sisters. In the evenings, instead of resting, she worked on a new book, Finite and Infinite Being. One evening, when she visited a Catholic friend, she learned of the Nazis' atrocities against the Jews, and was deeply disturbed. She decided to go to Rome and inform the Pope. In the meantime, she wrote him a letter in which she said: "My people and I are facing extermination". Edith was forced to give up teaching, and was already aware of the Calvary that awaited her.

After the death of her spiritual director, Dr Schwind, Edith met another friendly priest, the Abbot of the monastery of Beuron, who supported her in the difficulties and opened her up to new spiritual conquests. Her vocation to the contemplative life had already emerged. She had been offered a teaching post in South America, but Edith refused it: "I cannot teach any longer", she reflected, "I cannot work any longer as a laywoman in the Church; this is a sign that I can finally enter Carmel". She had dreamed of taking this step since she had received baptism at the beginning of 1922.

Under the guidance of Dr Cosack, she knocked at the door of the Carmel in Cologne. She had to wait for a long time. Finally, she was called. When the prioress questioned her, Edith replied: "I have been with the Dominican Sisters for eight years, but I have never thought of entering there. I have been given spiritual direction by the Abbot of Beuron, but I have never thought of becoming a Benedictine nun. I know that the Lord is calling me to Carmel". On 14 October 1933, Edith was received by the nuns into the Carmel of Cologne. On 15 April 1934, she received the habit, taking the name Benedicta of the Cross. She made her simple profession on 21 April 1935. The new Nazi regime was accentuating its racial struggle, and the anti-Semitic laws of Nuremberg were issued in 1935. Those Jews who could do so, emigrated. In 1938, the laws became still more cruel. The laws obliged the Jews to give an account of their possessions, to prefix the name Israel in their passport, to add the letter "J" to their identity documents and, for women, to add the name Sarah.

In order to control the whole nation, Hitler subdivided Germany into administrative districts called Gau, putting a loyal man at the head of each. The Gau was divided into provinces, rural and urban districts, and suburbs, each district. Those who were utterly faithful to Hitler dominated the whole situation and knew the entire population.

When Edith entered Carmel, she intended, only to follow her own vocation in response to the call of God. Accordingly, she took the religious life seriously. She was asked to engage in literary activity, which was useful for the Monastery. She wrote articles, introductions, commentaries, and philosophical interpretations dealing with Christianity. She worked on a weighty book: Finite Being and Eternal Being. She was asked to write a monograph about St. John of the Cross. She began also to write The Science of the Cross.

In 1938, Cologne, like all the other German cities, was invaded by posters inviting the people to vote for Hitler. These were falsified elections. The secret police, the infamous Gestapo, had eliminated the Catholic opposition. In the Carmel, there was fear that the same fate awaited the nuns. Sister Benedicta opposed the voting with all her power; she urged the nuns, "I beg you, think of conscience, not of the consequences for the monastery and for our persons. It is better to die than to vote yes. Hitler is the greatest enemy of God, and he will bring us all to ruin".

An electoral delegation came to the monastery to gather the votes of the sisters. Despite perplexity and reservations, the superior and the other sisters voted. Edith Stein did not vote, for she could not: the superior said that she was not an "Arian". The delegation reacted visibly to this news, and noted, beside her name, that she had not voted. When Sister Benedicta Stein heard of this, she said: "This is the shadow of the Cross that is falling upon my people". Fearing the worst, the sisters thought of having Edith emigrate to Palestine; but Hitler had already forbidden this. They asked therefore that Edith and Rosa Stein be given asylum at the monastery of Echt.

On 21 April 1938, Edith-Benedicta made her solemn vows. During the rite, she offered herself as a holocaust to God. The contacts with the monastery of Echt led to the decision that Edith should leave for Holland. Dr Paul Streath, a doctor who was a friend of the sisters took charge of this matter and accompanied Edith into Holland, through the nets of the police. The passport which the doctor had obtained for Edith contained neither the letter "J" nor the name Sarah. Edith was joined by her sister Rosa. They found serenity in Holland. Edith noted in her diary: "My family is scattered in all the world, but only God knows why!"

In 1940, the Germans occupied Holland, and Hitler's Germany set up its spy network in the whole Dutch territory. The Carmel at Echt, which had been thought secure, stood under the nightmare of the threat, and so it was planned to transfer the two sisters to a Swiss monastery. But the monastery at Le Paquier could take only Edith. Yet once again, Benedicta refused to be transferred without her sister, who was still a postulant. The permission for both of them arrived later, but it was too late. Events rushed onwards. The military curfew prevented the citizens from moving freely, and Edith and Rosa could not leave the monastery. An agent of the Gestapo knocked at the monastery door and asked to speak to the Stein sisters. Probably it was not a betrayal that had revealed their presence, but rather the rigorous control of the post by the Gestapo itself. The agent himself filled out the passports of Edith and Rosa in accordance with the racist regulations.

The Dutch episcopate reacted against the treacheries and the vexations by the army of invasion, but the Gestapo was inflexible: on 27 July 1942, the general commissioner of the Reich for Holland issued an order which said: "Since the Catholic Bishops have meddled in affairs that have nothing to do with them, all the Catholic Jews will be deported by the end of this week. No intervention in their favour will be respected". On 2 August 1942, at five o'clock in the afternoon, Edith was taken away by two officers of the SS, together with her sister Rosa. The mother superior in her simplicity was at first deceived, then she tried to defend the two sisters, but the two officers were intransigent and threatened the destruction of the monastery. Edith, encouraging her sister, said, as she left the monastery, "Come, let us go for our people". The two officers of the SS dragged them so brutally that the people protested. No one knew what their destination would be. The prioress of Echt received a letter from Sister Benedicta dated 5 August 1942, which said: "I am happy about everything. One can gain a science of the Cross only if one feels the weight of the Cross pressing down with all its force". On 6 August, Edith was able to send a second letter through a sister present in the camp, and in it she revealed her great concern about survival. Edith was at the camp of Westerbork and lacked everything, including clothing. Finally, the sisters were informed of this.

On the night of 6-7 August 1942, the Stein sisters, with other prisoners, were forced to board a train that was going to the dreary marshes of Silesia, to Auschwitz. It was the train of death. When the war was over, the Nuremberg trials shed light on the journeys of death and on that of the two Stein sisters. Their name was written on the list of transports to Auschwitz-Bikenau on 7 August 1942. The train arrived at its destination on 9 August, after two days' journey with packed wagons; it transported in all 987 men, women and children. The terrible thirst in the month of August and the discomforts were the prelude to the martyrdom. The rest is the "rite" of death. Edith and Rosa, with other women and other deported persons, were sent to the gas chambers, and then their naked bodies were thrown into a common ditch. Edith Stein left the words: "I believe in God. I believe that the nature of God is love, I believe that man exists in love, is upheld by God, is saved by God". This is her essential message in a world that is filled with blood by absurd and ferocious lies.

Edith Stein is not dead. She is the symbol of a genocide that was carried out by satanic hatred. She helps those who are in anguish because of other aberrations to rediscover the light: the Christ of hope and of love.

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