Stein, Edith

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Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, philosopher, Carmelite nun, martyr (1891–1942). Born at Breslau (Germany) now Wroclaw (Poland) into a devout Jewish family, she became in her teens a convinced atheist who gave up prayer, but always pursued truth. She studied philosophy and other subjects at Gottingen and Freiburg Universities mainly under Edmund Husserl (d. 1938), teacher of Heidegger (d. 1976), and under Max Scheler (d. 1928), who introduced her to important Catholic thinkers. She also read the autobiography of St Theresa of Avila, which impressed her greatly in spite of the obvious temperamental differences between them. She was baptized in 1922: knowing how this hurt her mother, she accompanied her to the synagogue and read the psalms with her. For Edith her Catholicism was the fulfilment, not the denial of her Jewish inheritance and culture.

In the Germany of 1920 there were few openings for philosophers, male or female. Although she had become Husserl's assistant for a time, she now taught German language and literature to girls in a Dominican school. This did not suit her: she seemed narrow and forbidding, and was said by an inspector to ‘know much, but she cannot teach.’ Now she discovered Thomas Aquinas, some of whose works she translated into German. She did not obtain a University lectureship, but did work at the Educational Institute at Munster from 1932. She then embarked on a controversial study (before its time) on the place of women in the Church. Hitler was now in power and his violent anti-Semitic policies began to be implemented. She prayed for guidance at Cologne and wrote: ‘Christ's Cross is being laid on the Jewish people. Most of them do not know this, but those who do ought to embrace it willingly in the name of all.’ She then decided to become a Carmelite nun at the age of forty-two without a dowry apart from her collection of books. She was slow at housework and sewing, but she discovered a sense of humour. Her superior told her to resume her writing, first on the Prayer of the Church and the Mystery of Christmas, and then on Finite and Eternal Being, and lastly on The Knowledge of the Cross. This, based closely on the poems of St John of the Cross, was her last and unrevised work. She had made her final vows in 1937 and was sent to the Carmel at Echt in Holland for her protection: a plan to send her to Switzerland came to nothing.

In 1939 German forces invaded Holland and vigorously pursued the Nazi persecution of Jews. At first baptized Jews were exempted from deportation. Edith refused to go into hiding as there would have been repercussions against her convent. The Catholic Dutch bishops protested vigorously against the deportations in a pastoral letter. Three weeks later, all non-Aryan Christians were arrested in reprisal and demonstrations of sympathy were ruthlessly punished. Gestapo officers arrested and deported Teresa Benedicta to a concentration camp, where she was seen comforting and helping others. She was killed in Auschwitz on 9 August. Her writings reveal her as a true disciple of Christ and of St John of the Cross, whom she followed in the darkness of faith. ‘Sufferings endured with the Lord are his sufferings’, she wrote, ‘and bear great fruit in the context of his great work of redemption.’ Such sentiments reveal that she died not only for one race, but for all, in the closest union with Christ on Calvary. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1987 and canonized in 1998. She is now joint patroness of Europe. Feast: 9 August.


Subjects: Christianity.

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