The Word Among Us

October 2004 Issue

Living under the Mystery of the Cross

The Story of St. Edith Stein

By: Hallie Riedel

On August 2, 1942, the German S.S. stormed a Carmelite convent in Echt, Holland, and demanded that one of its nuns, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, be handed over immediately, along with her sister Rosa. The convent was thrown into confusion: The prioress begged for more time, sisters threw together some belongings for the two women, and alarmed neighbors gathered outside. Only Sr. Teresa maintained her composure. “Come, Rosa,” she said calmly. “We are going for our people.”

Thus began the final chapter in the story of St. Edith Stein, who had taken the name Sr. Teresa when she became a Carmelite. And it’s this final chapter, including her death in the gas chambers of Ausch-witz, that is the most familiar to us. But while the climax of Edith’s story is riveting, the entire journey of her life can speak to us even more powerfully. Edith Stein’s heroic death was in essence the culmination of a life lived under the cross of Christ, a life that had been “crucified” with him for years.

Growing Up in a Jewish Family. Edith was the youngest of eleven children of Auguste and Siegfried Stein in Breslau, Germany—now Wroclaw, Poland. She was born into this devout Jewish family on October 12, 1891, on the feast of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Edith’s father died when she was two years old, and her mother took over the family’s lumber business, making it a great success. Yet despite the demands of business and family, Auguste regularly attended synagogue, observed all the holy days, and freely showed generosity and hospitality to the needy around her.

Edith showed great potential from the beginning: With so many older siblings, she was reciting the names of famous German writers before starting school and even considered kindergarten beneath her dignity. Immediately following her sixth birthday, with the school year half over, Edith enrolled in first grade. She could neither read nor write, but she finished the year near the top of her class! She often exasperated her classmates, one of whom exclaimed: “Oh, for once, let me be right!” Still, Edith’s academic drive did not dampen her enthusiasm for life or her outgoing nature. She always seemed to have many friends.

At age twelve, after dropping out of school because she was bored, Edith spent a year with her sister, Else, in Hamburg. Since neither Else nor her husband practiced their faith, Edith returned home having made the conscious decision to give up belief in God. Her mother tried to dissuade her, but Edith would not be moved. Too many questions needed answers, and she could not find them in the faith of her childhood.

Edith attended the University of Breslau to study philosophy, but transferred to Goettingen to study under Edmund Husserl, the pioneer of a new philosophical approach called phenomenology. Along with Edith Stein, Husserl’s teachings influenced thinkers as varied as Jean-Paul Sartre and Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II. Edith thrived in her new setting: deep philosophical discussions with her friends, poring over the writings of Husserl, and the freedom to explore new ideas. In many ways, it seemed an ideal life for the young, determined intellectual. But a series of events happened that brought her face-to-face with the cross—and challenged her most fundamental assumptions about life, God, and faith.

The Cross Breaks In. In late 1917, one of Edith’s professors and close friends, Adolf Reinach, was killed on the battlefields of Flanders. He and his wife Anna had been married for less than five years and were Jewish converts to Christianity. Edith was asked to help set Professor Reinach’s papers in order, and she dreaded the task. How could she, with all her uncertainty, offer any comfort to a young widow? But Edith found Anna neither distraught nor depressed but peaceful and filled with the hope of the resurrection. In fact, it was Anna who ended up comforting her! “It was my first encounter with the cross,” she wrote. “For the first time I was seeing with my very eyes the church . . . triumphant over the sting of death. That was the moment that my unbelief collapsed and Christ shone forth—in the mystery of the cross.”

But Edith was not ready for baptism. She had too many questions, and until they were resolved, she felt, she could not embrace Christianity.

A turning point came in 1921, when Edith spent the summer with another couple who were philosophers. Looking for a good book to read one night, she randomly picked up the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. Once she started reading, she couldn’t stop. She read straight through the night, and as she finished the book, she realized that she had found the truth. St. Teresa seemed to challenge Edith to put aside her questions for a bit and let God fill her heart. Prayer, not research, was key. Edith responded immediately by buying a missal and a catechism and preparing for baptism.

A Share in the Passion. After her baptism a few months later, Edith faced one of her toughest challenges: telling her mother. She was prepared for an angry confrontation but was shocked when her mother simply began to weep. Edith remained a devoted daughter, accompanying her mother to synagogue, but reading the psalms from her missal.

Edith spent the next eight years teaching at a Dominican school for girls, where she enjoyed sharing the sisters’ communal life. During this time, she gave up scholarly aspirations and devoted herself to prayer. Still eager to apply her talents, however, she translated St. Thomas Aquinas into German and did some additional philosophical writing. In 1930, she was approached by the Association of Catholic Women Teachers to speak about contemporary issues. Edith’s approach, grounded in faith, resonated deeply with her audience, and she toured widely.

In the midst of her growing fame as a philosopher, however, Edith was developing an intense prayer life. She was known to pray for hours before a picture of Our Lady of Sorrows, gazing at another Jewish woman who had embraced Christ and allowed his suffering and his cross to pierce her heart.

In 1933, after an outbreak of anti-Semitism in Hitler’s Germany, Edith began to understand that Jesus suffers when his people suffer: “I said to the Lord . . . that it was his cross that was now laid on the Jewish people. Most of my people did not understand that, but those who did had to bear it willingly in the name of all the others. I wanted to do that. . . . But in what way this bearing of the cross would happen, I still did not know.”

When Edith lost her teaching position because she was a Jew, it seemed all her ties to her former life were severed. She decided that the time had finally come to enter the Carmelite convent in Cologne, Germany. Before starting her novitiate in October 1933, Edith spoke with the prioress, who felt there was so much she still could do outside the convent. Edith replied simply: “It is not human activity that can help us but the Passion of Christ. It is a share in this that I desire.”

A share in Christ’s passion is exactly what she got, but in an unexpected way. Edith was so clumsy and unskilled at housework that it was painful to watch. But she persevered with good humor and accepted any humiliation that arose out of these deficiencies. As Edith learned how to empty herself, she grew more content and even joyful, although her joy was colored by an insightful dose of realism. When a friend rejoiced that Edith would be safe from persecution in the convent, she replied, “Oh no, I do not think so. They will surely get me out of here.”

"It Could Cost You Your Life.” As anti-Jewish violence increased in Germany, the Carmelites sent Edith to their convent in Echt, Holland, for “a change of air” in December 1938. Just a few months later, on Passion Sunday, 1939, Edith wrote to her prioress: “Please may Your Reverence allow me to offer myself to the heart of Jesus as a sacrifice of expiation for true peace, that the reign of the Antichrist may perish, if possible, without a new World War. . . . I should like to do this today, because it is the twelfth hour. I know that I am nothing, but Jesus desires it.” Edith felt strongly that she, like Esther, had been chosen by God to intercede for her people and to give her life freely so that they could receive God’s mercy.

Edith’s convictions were also evident in a meditation for the sisters’ annual renewal of vows in September 1939: “Will you remain faithful to the Crucified? Consider carefully! The world is in flames, the battle between Christ and the Antichrist has broken into the open. If you decide for Christ, it could cost you your life.”

Edith’s sister Rosa had converted to Catholicism following the death of their mother and arranged to join Edith in Echt in 1940. They lived there in relative peace for two more years, while Edith devoted herself to writing The Science of the Cross, an in-depth study of St. John of the Cross. Her work crystallized her own convictions about sharing Christ’s passion: “As Jesus, in his abandonment before death, delivered himself into the hands of the invisible and incomprehensible God, the soul must do likewise—casting herself headlong into the pitch darkness of faith, the only way to the incomprehensible God.”

Final Sacrifice. When Holland’s Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter critical of the Nazis in July, 1942, the Nazis quickly retaliated against Jewish Catholics. This is what brought the S.S. to the doors of the Carmelite convent in Echt on August 2. The sisters had gone to great lengths to arrange for another transfer of Edith and Rosa to Switzerland, but the paperwork did not come through in time. And so Edith and Rosa Stein were handed over to the Nazis for “deportation.” The detainees were packed into cattle cars and traveled for days by train.

The week that followed brought scattered reports of Edith. Witnesses said they saw a nun, “like an angel,” caring for the panicked mothers and children left alone; a calm but sorrowful figure, “like a Pieta without the Christ”; an island of consolation bringing comfort to many others.

Most remarkably, during that week, Edith Stein was able to write to the sisters at Echt. She left a few scribbled notes, but one in particular seems to sum up her life: “I am content about everything. One cannot acquire a knowledge of the cross unless one begins by really suffering the weight of the cross. From the very beginning, I have had this inner conviction, and I have said from the bottom of my heart, Ave crux, spes unica [hail to the cross, our only hope].”

By August 9, Edith and Rosa arrived at Auschwitz and were gassed the same day.

Lessons for Today. The “parable” of Edith Stein’s life may seem spectacular: An intellectually gifted woman, a famous writer and speaker, leaves it all behind. She converts from Judaism to Catholicism and enters a convent. Finally, she freely offers her life in the Holocaust. And through it all, her steady growth in holiness and the preparation of her soul for its final sacrifice came to her the way it comes to all of us: through encounters with the cross. For Edith, the cross broke in to challenge her intellectualism; next, it revealed the person of Jesus at her conversion; then, what followed were a series of sacrifices of detachment from her “script” for her life.

While we may never be called to die for our faith, we are all called to embrace the cross. God sees every sacrifice we make, and these sacrifices, no matter how small, make us more Christlike and open the way for God’s kingdom to advance in the world. Edith once wrote: “The more an era is engulfed in the night of sin and estrangement from God, the more it needs souls united to God. . . . The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night.” Like Edith Stein, each of us can be one of those figures.

Hallie Riedel lives in Montgomery Village, Maryland.