St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
Edith Stein was born into a Jewish family in Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław in modern Poland) on 12 October 1891 (the Jewish Day of Atonement that year), the youngest of the eleven children born to Siegfried and Auguste Stein.
Edith’s father died when she was just two years old. She was a lively and intelligent child, excelling at school. However, she would write later: “I knew from my earliest years that it is far more important to be good than to be clever.” She wanted to use her studies to help people and to make a difference for the better in the world. After passing her final school exams with distinction she undertook studies in German, History, Psychology and Philosophy; first at Breslau University and later, after discovering Edmund Husserl and phenomenology, she continued her studies at Göttingen in order to learn from Husserl himself. Her university studies were interrupted by the First World War, during which she volunteered as a nurse for the German Red Cross. After completing her doctorate in philosophy with a thesis On the Problem ofEmpathyand graduating summa cum laude, Edith worked as Husserl’s assistant in Freiburg.
Edith was brought up in an observant but not Orthodox Jewish household. In her teenage years she began to question the existence of God. Edith’s love of philosophy led her in a quest for truth which eventually brought her to the Catholic faith. In 1921, at the home of a friend, she read the Life of St Teresa of Avila from cover to cover. On finishing the book, Edith said to herself “That is the truth.” Soon afterwards she asked to be baptised as a Catholic.
Edith left her position with Husserl to become a teacher in a Dominican college, while continuing her philosophical writings. She also travelled widely, speaking at education conferences and gatherings of professional women. She was sometimes criticised for making these lectures too spiritual but she made no apology. For Edith, there was no distinction between her spiritual life and intellectual or professional life; all was one and she presented this as a way for others to follow.
In 1932 Edith moved to a new post as a lecturer in Munster but an edict of the Nazi government preventing Jews from teaching meant that she was dismissed from this job in 1933.
For many years, Edith had felt called to religious life and the time was now ripe for her to enter Carmel, on 14 October 1933. She took the habit six months later along with the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She made her final profession of vows on 21 April 1938. Edith’s wise Prioress allowed her to use her intellectual gifts and continue with her philosophical writings. It was in Carmel that Edith wrote her masterpiece, Finite and Eternal Being.
As the Nazi persecution of the Jews worsened, Edith suffered along with her people. She wrote to a friend, “I keep having to think of Queen Esther who was taken from among her people precisely that she might represent them before the king.”
At the end of 1938, it was decided that it would be safer for Edith and the Cologne Carmel if she moved secretly to another Carmel outside Germany. Echt Carmel in Holland were happy to receive her and later they also took in Edith’s sister, Rosa, who was a Catholic and a lay Carmelite. Rosa lived and worked in the monastery extern. Their relative safety was not to last however; Holland was invaded in 1940 by the Nazis.
In retaliation for a pastoral letter of the Dutch Bishops which had condemned the deportation of the Jews, the Nazis rounded up all Catholic Jews in Holland on 2 August 1942. Most of the women and children were sent on the same transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau where they died in the gas chamber soon after their arrival on 9 August 1942. Eyewitness accounts of Edith in the transit camps describe her as calm and composed, practical, compassionate, a peaceful influence on all around her.
Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was beatified in 1987 by Pope St John Paul II in Cologne, and canonised by him in Rome in 1998. The following year, she was declared a co-patron of Europe, along with St Bridget of Sweden and St Catherine of Siena.
Her feast is celebrated on 9 August, the anniversary of her martyrdom in Auschwitz-Birkenau.