Edith Stein, religious name Teresa Benedicta was a German Jewish philosopher who converted to Roman Catholicism and became a Discalced Carmelite nun. Edith was born in Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland), Lower Silesia, into an observant Jewish family. She was the youngest of 11 children and was born on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Hebrew calendar, which combined to make her a favourite of her mother.
When she was not yet two years old her father died suddenly, leaving Edith’s mother to raise the seven remaining children (four had died in childhood) and to manage the family business. Brought up on the Psalms and Proverbs, Edith considered her mother a living example of the strong woman of Proverbs 31, who rises early to care for her family and trade in the marketplace. At 14 years old, Edith considered herself an atheist, but she continued to admire her mother’s attitude of total openness toward God.
As a student at the University of Göttingen, she became fascinated by phenomenology, an approach to philosophy. Edith philosophical studies encouraged her openness to the possibility of transcendent realities, and her atheism began to crumble under the influence of her friends who had converted to Christianity.
During the summer of 1921, at the age of twenty-nine, Edith was vacationing with friends but found herself alone for the evening. She picked up, seemingly by chance, the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, founder of the Carmelite Order. She read it in one sitting, decided that the Catholic faith was true, and went out the next day to buy a Missal and a copy of the Catholic catechism. “When I had finished the book,” she later recalled, “I said to myself: This is the truth.” She was baptized the following January and took the religious name of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Edith eventually became a leading voice in the Catholic Womans Movement in Germany, speaking at conferences and helping to formulate the principles behind the movement. By the time Hitler rose to power in early 1933, Edith was well-known in the German academic community. Hitler’s growing popularity and the increasing pressure on the Jewish people, prompted her to request an audience with the pope in the spring of 1933. She hoped that a special encyclical might help counteract the mounting tide of anti-Semitism.
To avoid the growing Nazi threat, her Order transferred her and her sister, Rosa, who was also a convert and an extern sister of the Carmel, to the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Echt, Netherlands. In her testament of 6 June 1939 she wrote:
“I beg the Lord to take my life and my death … for all concerns of the sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary and the holy Church, especially for the preservation of our holy Order, in particular the Carmelite monasteries of Cologne and Echt, as atonement for the unbelief of the Jewish People, and that the Lord will be received by His own people and His kingdom shall come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world, at last for my loved ones, living or dead, and for all God gave to me: that none of them shall go astray.”
Ultimately, she was not safe in the Netherlands. After living for four years in the Cologne Carmel, in Echt, Netherlands, the Nazis finally occupied that country in 1940. In retaliation for being denounced by the Dutch bishops, the Nazis arrested all Dutch Jews who had become Christians.
Edith was arrested by the SS on 2 August 1942. She and her sister Rosa were imprisoned at the concentration camps of Amersfoort and Westerbork before being deported to Auschwitz. A Dutch official at Westerbork was so impressed by her sense of faith and calm, he offered her an escape plan. Edith vehemently refused his assistance, stating, “If somebody intervened at this point and took away her chance to share in the fate of her brothers and sisters, that would be utter annihilation.”
On 7 August 1942, early in the morning, 987 Jews were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. It was probably on 9 August that Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, her sister, and many more of her people were killed in a mass gas chamber.