Edith Stein was a remarkable Jewish woman. Born in Breslau, Germany on 12 October 1891, the youngest of eleven children of a very devout Jewish family, she died in the Auschwitz gas chamber on 9 August 1942, having been sent to the death camp when she refused to deny her Jewish heritage.
In the intervening 50 years, she was a remarkably successful woman in a male dominated world. became a convert to Catholicism and a devout Carmelite nun who, as anti-Semitism spread and intensified in Germany and Holland, wished to offer her life for world peace and the preservation of her Jewish people.
She was a brilliant student, first enrolling at the University of Breslau in 1911, and later transferring to the University of Gottingen to pursue her studies under the mentorship of the famed founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl. Husserl eventually chose Edith Stein to be his teaching assistant at the University of Freiburg, and declared her to be the best doctoral student he ever had -- even more able than Heidegger who was also a pupil of Husserl's at the same time Edith was. In 1916 she completed her doctoral dissertation and was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy degree summa cum laude.
As the draft began calling up many of her friends for service in World War I, Edith volunteered together with a number of other women students for duty in military hospitals. She requested an assignment in a hospital for infectious diseases, and devotedly cared for soldiers of the Austrian Army who were suffering from typhus, dysentery and cholera. On completion of her term as a volunteer at the military hospital, Edith was awarded the medal of valor in recognition of her selfless service.
She next became Husserl's assistant at the University of Freiburg, where he had been called to a Full Professorship, and there her religious struggle began as, in her pursuit of truth, she turned to reading the New Testament and began her gradual movement back towards a faith which she had earlier abandoned. On January 1, 1922 -- New Year's Day -- Edith Stein was baptized a Catholic, taking the name Teresa as her baptismal name. She continued to attend the Synagogue with her mother, praying the psalms of the service.
At this point in her life, Edith discontinued her scholarly career as a student and accepted a position teaching German at the Dominican Sisters' school in Speyer. Here, for eight years, she labored as a teacher, and balanced her day between work and prayer. She was known to be a sympathetic and accomodating teacher who worked hard to convey her material in a clear and systematic manner, and whose concern extended beyond the transmission of knowledge to include the formation of the whole person. Sne believed education to be an apostolic work.
Throughout this period, Edith continued her philosophical writings and translations, and took on speaking engagements that took her to cities such as Heidelberg, Zurich, Salzburg. In the course of her lectures she frequently addressed herself to the role and significance of women in contemporary life as she developed themes treating "The Ethos of Women's Professions," "The Separate Vocations of Man and Woman According to God and Nature," "The Spirituality of Christian Woman," "Fundamental Principles of Women's Education," "Problems of Women's Education," "The Church, Woman and Youth," and "The Significance of Woman's Intrinsic Value in National Life."A reading of the texts of these lectures clearly reveals Edith Stein's radical feminist stance and her strong commitment to the recognition and advancement of women, and to the value she attached to the mature Christian life of a woman as a source of healing for the world.
In 1931 Edith left the convent school to devote herself full-time to writing and the publication of her works. In 1932, she accepted a lectureship position at the University of Munster, but a year later was told that she would have to give up her position because of her Jewish background. A sympathetic university administration suggested that she work on her projects privately until the situation in Germany improved, but Edith declined. An offer to teach in South America was also made, but after giving the matter serious consideration, Edith became convinced that the time had come for her to fulfill her ambition to enter the convent. AOn October 14, 1933, at age 42, Edith Stein entered the Carmelite Convent in Cologne and took the religious name, Teresa, Benedicta a Cruce -- Teresa, Blessed of the Cross, reflecting her special devotion to the Passion of Christ and her gratitude for the spiritual patronage of Teresa of Avila.
In the convent, Edith continued to study and write, completing the text of her book, Finite and Being, her magnum opus, authoring Ways of Knowing God and The Symbolic Theology of the Areopagite, a two-volume translation of St. Thomas' works, and working on The Science of the Cross.
By 1938 the situation in Germany had grown steadily worse, and the S.S. attack of November 8 (Kristallnacht) removed any lingering doubts about the true state of affairs of Jewish citizens. The Convent Prioress arranged for Edith to be transferred to the Dutch convent at Echt, and on New Years Eve, 31 December 1938, Edith Stein was driven across the border under the cover of darkness to Holland. There, at the Convent in Echt, Edith composed three acts of self-oblation, offering her life up for the Jewish people, the averting of war (i.e., peace) and for the sanctification of her Carmelite family. She then settled into a life of teaching the postulants Latin and writing a book on St. John of the Cross.
As the crematoria and gas chambers rose in the East, Edith, along with thousands of Jews in Holland, began receiving citations from the S.S. (Hitler's "Protection Squadron") in Maastricht and the Council for Jewish Affairs in Amsterdam.
She applied for a Swiss visa, along with her sister Rosa who had joined her at Echt, that they might transfer to the Carmelite Convent of Le Paquier. The Le Paquier community informed the Echt community that while they would be glad to receive Edith, they could not accomodate Rosa. This was unacceptable to Edith, and she refused to go to Switzerland preferring to remain with her sister at Echt. Determined to finish The Science of the Cross, she used every available moment for research, often working to the point of exhaustion.
In the Dutch Carmelite community at Echt, Edith Stein's protection against the growing persecution of Jews was only temporary. While the Nazi policy of exterminating Jews was rapidly implemented once Holland was occupied, Jews who professed Christianity were initially left alone. However, when the Catholic bishops in the Netherlands issued a pastoral letter in which they sharply protested against the deportation of the Jews, the Nazi rulers reacted by ordering the extermination of baptized Jews as well.
That is the reason why on Sunday, August 2, 1942, at 5 o'clock in the afternoon, after Edith Stein had spent the day in her usual manner, praying and working on the unfinished manuscript of her book on St. John of the Cross. At 5:00 o'clock in the afternoon, the S.S. officers came to the Convent and led away Edith and Rosa Stein. Frightened by the crowd and unable to absorb fully the situation, Rosa began to grow disoriented. A witness has related that Edith took Rosa by the hand and said reassuringly, "Come Rosa, We're going for our people." Together they walked to the corner and got into the waiting police van. There are a number of eye witness accounts of Edith's behavior during her days of imprisonment at Amersfoort and Westerbork, a central detention camp in the north of Holland -- her silence, her calm, her composure, her self-possession, her comforting and consoling of other women, her caring for the little ones, washing them and combing their hair and making sure that they were fed.
In the middle of the night before the dawn of August 7, 1942, the Westerbork prisoners, including Edith Stein, the Carmelite nun, were placed in trains and deported to Auschwitz. In 1950, the Dutch Gazette published the official list of names of all Jews who had been deported from Holland on 7 August 1942. There were no survivors from the transport. Among the listing is the following entry:
Number 44070: Edith Theresa Hedwig Stein, Echt Born: 12 October 1891, Breslau Died: 9 August 1942On May 1, 1987, Edith Stein, a Carmelite nun and a victim of the Holocaust at Auschwitz, was beatified, along with Father Rupert Mayer, a Jesuit priest known for his resistance to the Nazis, during a Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II in Cologne, West Germany. In the course of his homily, the Pope noted that Edith Stein, the philosopher, was preoccupied in life with the search for truth, and her life was one illuminated by the cross.
"In the years when she studied...at the universities of Breslau, Gottingen and Freiburg," the Pope said, "God did not play an important role, at least initially. Her thinking was based on a demanding ethical idealism. In keeping with her intellectual abilities, she did not want to accept anything without careful examination, not even the faith of her fathers. She wanted to get to the bottom of things herself. As such she was engaged in a constant search for the truth. Looking back on this period of intellectual unrest in her life, she saw it an important phase in a process of spiritual maturation. 'My search for truth,' she said, 'was a constant prayer' --... a comforting bit of testimony for those who have a hard time believing in God. The search for truth is itself in a very profound sense a search for God."The playwrite, Arthur Giron, who wrote the first draft of his play, called simply Edith Stein, while finishing his Master of Arts degree in playwriting at Hunter College, has said, "The real Edith Stein was a dark, fine-boned beauty. She had something, some quality, that naturally attracted people to her. She was very feminine, yet very strong, very tough under the surface. She was very smart about getting what she wanted out of life." When asked if he ever feels that Edith Stein may be present in spirit during performances of his play, Giron replied, I feel Edith is here with me now. I feel the presence very strongly as you and I are talking."
On October 14, 1987, Giron squeezed his eyes shut against the pain as the surgeons began screwing a metal brace into his skull -- without anesthesia and prior to an injection of cobalt into his brain. It was then that Giron saw a vision of radiant white light, and out of the light emerged the figure of a nun. Giron was not surprised to see her. After all, he had been obsessed with this woman for nearly thirty (30) years. He had written his first play about her. A decade later, he rewrote it. He had been rewriting the script yet again, this time for a Pittsburgh Public Theatre production scheduled to open on January 5, 1988, when a dime-sized web of veins in his cerebellum began leaking blood. As he lay on the operating table, Giron knew the spirit of the nun he was seeing in his mind was somehow, literally, in that operating room with him. He greeted her by name "Edith Stein," Giron said to himself as the surgeon's screws bore into his skull, "this is for you."
This same Edith Stein, now presented to us as a blessed martyr and an heroic follower of Christ, is present to us this afternoon as we dedicate this magnificent academic building in her name and in her honor. In the words of Pope John Paul II,
"Let us open ourselves up for her message to us as a woman of the spirit and of the mind, who saw in the science of the cross the acme of all wisdom..."Edith Stein is a gift, an invocation and a promise for our time. May she be an intercessor before God for our faculty, our students, our administrators, our staff, our alumni, our benefactors, and for all people throughout the world. Blessed Edith Stein, Sister Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, a true worshipper of God -- in spirit and in truth -- pray for us and for all your people!
The following material, which discusses Edith Stein's association with several Jesuits, has been excerpted from a 1986 Address to the Faculty of Holy Cross delivered by the (then) President of Holy Cross, the Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J.
In 1925, Fr. Erich Przywara, the Jesuit philosopher of religion, was introduced to Edith Stein, and had high regard for her as a teacher, an educator. Early on, he asked her to translate some of the letters of Cardinal Newman, and this was the beginning of a lively intellectual friendship between the two. He also recommended that she translate St. Thomas, up to then terra incognita to the phenomenologists. He put her in touch with the Benedictine Abbey of Bueron where she was able to satisfy her thirst for prayer. Beginning in 1927, he assumed the responsibility of setting up regular lecture tours for Edith.
In 1933, very much aware of the catastrophe threatening the Jewish people in Germany, Edith had requested Pope Pius XI to write an encyclical in defense of the Jews. Unfortunately, this request was not complied with at the time--due in large part to faulty handling of the request. But shortly thereafter, the Pope did commission two Jesuits, Fathers LaFarge and Grundlach, to compose a document condemning racial persecution. The outbreak of World War II and the death of the Pope prevented the publication of these efforts, but parts of their work later appeared in the speeches of Pius XII.
In 1941, Fr. Jan H. Nota, S.J., Professor of Philosophy and Phenomenology at McMaster University in Hamilton , Ontario, met Edith Stein in Echt, Holland. He was, at the time, a young Dutch Jesuit, who had recently moved to Valkenberg as a result of the 1940 commandeering of the Jesuit house at Maastricht by the Nazis.
Edith's philosophical study, Finite and Eternal Being, had been set for publication in 1936, but anti-Jewish laws in Germany prevented it, and eventually the plates had been destroyed. The superior at the Convent in Echt decided to consult the Valkenberg Jesuits about the feasibility of having the work published in either Holland or Belgium. They also asked if a Jesuit priest would be available to collaborate with Edith Stein. Fr. Nota was recommended, having just finished his own dissertation on Max Scheler.
This was the beginning of a brief but profound friendship that developed between Fr. Nota and Edith Stein, as he came to know her as a person who "had continued to be a great philosopher after having become a Carmelite nun."
last saw her on 16 July 1942. On 9 August 1982, the 40
It is Fr. Nota's hope that Edith Stein's thought will become more accessible to a wider audience, both among students and the general public, so that people will appreciate her understanding of human existance and be helped to live out that existance themselves, meaningfully and fraternally, in the midst of a troubled world.
For all these reasons Edith Stein Hall has been named in honor of a remarkable woman who was a brilliant philosopher and lecturer, a productive researcher and author, a fine teacher, a mystic, an exemplary feminist, a victim of the Holocaust and a friend of several Jesuits.