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. Of the seven children who survived infancy, four would be victims of the Nazi genocide: Edith and Rosa at Auschwitz, Paul and Frieda at Theresianstadt.
Edith’s father died suddenly of heatstroke 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.” Aged fourteen, she dropped out of school and went to Hamburg for a year to help her sister Else, who was expecting her second child. At this time, Edith wrote, she "deliberately and consciously gave up praying." When she returned to Breslau, her closest sister Erna was preparing to go to university and Edith realised this was what she wanted to do, too. 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, working mainly with eastern European conscripts in a typhoid ward. After completing her doctorate in philosophy with an original thesis On the Problem of Empathy and graduating with highest honours, Edith worked as Husserl’s assistant in Freiburg, a position that was taken over by Martin Heidegger 18 months later when Edith resigned.
Edith’s love of philosophy led her in a quest for truth which eventually brought her to the Catholic faith. She was influenced by Christian friends at university and particularly by Anna, the widow of her dear friend and teacher Adolf Reinach, who was killed in action in 1917. She described the experience of witnessing Anna's deep faith in bereavement many years later: “This was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine strength that it inspires in those who bear it. For the first time I saw before my very eyes the Church, born of Christ’s redemptive suffering, victorious over the sting of death. It was the moment in which my unbelief was shattered. Judaism paled, and Christ radiated before me: Christ in the mystery of the Cross.”
The next few years were difficult and painful for Edith as she struggled to reconcile faith and reason. In summer 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.” She immediately decided to become a Catholic, bought herself a catechism and missal, and requested baptism. She was baptised Teresa Hedwig on 1 January 1922.
For the next 8 years, Edith taught at a Dominican college in Speyer. She also undertook translation work and 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 April 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 at Cologne. She took the habit six months later along with the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross - which she said was in honour of St Benedict, whose monks had provided her 'spiritual home' at Beuron Abbey where she liked to make her annual retreat. 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, following the destruction of Kristallnacht, it was decided that it would be safer for Edith and the Cologne Carmel if she moved secretly to another Carmel outside Germany. The sisters of Echt Carmel in Holland were happy to receive her and later they also took in Edith’s sister, Rosa, who was a Catholic and became a lay Carmelite at the monastery. 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, including Edith and Rosa. They were sent first to Amersfoort transit camp and from there to Westerbork on 4 August. Three days later, 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.