S+L logo

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Eminent Daughter of Israel, Faithful Daughter of the Church

Salt and Light Media

August 8, 2013
Edith Stein, the youngest of eleven children of a devout Jewish family, was born in Wroclaw, Poland, on October 12, 1891. Following the death of her father when she was only 21 months old, Edith was raised by her mother, who carried on the family business, along with her sisters. Edith eventually grew up to be counted among a small group of women to attend university when she enrolled at the University of Breslau in 1911, and later transferring to the University of Gottingen to pursue her studies under the mentorship of the renowned founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl. Husserl eventually chose Edith Stein to be his teaching assistant at the University of Freiburg, and called her the best doctoral student he ever had – even more able than Heidegger who was also a pupil of Husserl's at the same time Edith was. In 1916 Edith completed her doctoral dissertation and was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy degree summa cum laude.
As the draft began calling up many of her friends for service in World War I, Edith volunteered together with a number of other women students for duty in military hospitals. She requested an assignment in a hospital for infectious diseases, and lovingly cared for soldiers of the Austrian Army who were suffering from typhus, dysentery and cholera. On completion of her term as a volunteer at the military hospital, Edith was awarded the medal of valor in recognition of her selfless service.
Edith-Stein_sgwShe then became Husserl's assistant at the University of Freiburg, where he had was promoted to a Full Professorship. It was here that her religious struggle began as, in her pursuit of truth, she turned to reading the New Testament and began her gradual movement back towards a faith which she had earlier abandoned. On January 1, 1922, Edith Stein was baptized a Catholic, taking the name Teresa as her baptismal name. She continued to attend the Synagogue with her mother, praying the psalms of Jewish prayer service.
Following her conversion, Edith discontinued her scholarly career as a student and accepted a position teaching German at the Dominican Sisters' school in Speyer. For eight years, she worked as a teacher, and balanced her day between work and prayer. Throughout this period, Edith continued her philosophical writings and translations, and took on speaking engagements that took her to cities such as Heidelberg, Zurich, Salzburg. In the course of her lectures she frequently addressed herself to the role and significance of women in contemporary life. Some favorite themes of her public lectures were: "The Separate Vocations of Man and Woman According to God and Nature," "The Spirituality of Christian Woman," "Problems of Women's Education," and "The Significance of Woman's Intrinsic Value in National Life." Edith held a radical feminist stance, manifested a strong commitment to the recognition and advancement of women, and to the value she attached to the mature Christian life of a woman as a source of healing for the world.
In 1931 Edith left the convent school to devote herself full-time to writing and the publication of her works. In 1932, she accepted a lectureship position at the University of Munster, but a year later was told that she would have to give up her position because of her Jewish background. The university administration suggested that she work on her projects privately until the situation in Germany improved, but Edith declined.
Even though she had received an invitation to lecture in South America , Edith became convinced that the time had come for her to fulfill her dream to enter the convent. On October 14, 1933, at age 42, Edith Stein entered the Carmelite Convent in Cologne and took the religious name, Teresa, Benedicta a Cruce – Teresa, Blessed of the Cross, reflecting her special devotion to the Passion of Christ and her gratitude for the spiritual patronage of Teresa of Avila. In the convent, Edith continued to study and write, completing the text of her book, “Finite and Being.” her magnum opus, She also authored “Ways of Knowing God” and “The Symbolic Theology of the Areopagite,” a two-volume translation of St. Thomas' works while working on “The Science of the Cross.”
By 1938 the situation in Germany had deteriorated significantly, and the S.S. attack of November 8 (Kristallnacht) removed any lingering doubts about the true state of affairs of Jewish citizens. The Carmelite Prioress in the German Carmel arranged for Edith to be transferred to the Dutch convent at Echt, and on December 31, 1938, Edith Stein was driven across the border under the cover of darkness to Holland. There, at the Convent in Echt, Sr. Teresa Benedicta composed three acts of self-oblation, offering her life up for the Jewish people, for peace, and for the sanctification of her Carmelite family. She then settled into a life of teaching the postulants Latin and writing a book on St. John of the Cross. Edith’s sister Rosa had become a Catholic after their mother’s death in 1936, and in 1940 she joined Edith at the Echt Carmel as a Third Order Carmelite.
While the Nazi policy of exterminating Jews was rapidly implemented once Holland was occupied, Jews who professed Christianity were initially left alone. However, when the Catholic bishops in the Netherlands issued a pastoral letter in which they sharply protested against the deportation of the Jews, the Nazi rulers reacted violently by ordering the extermination of baptized Jews as well.
On Sunday, August 2, 1942, all Catholics of Jewish extraction in Holland were rounded up and arrested; two of whom were Edith and Rosa Stein. As neighbors gathered in horror at the door of the convent, they heard these last words of Edith Stein to her sister Rosa as the Nazis took them away: “Come, let us go for our people.” Given an opportunity to be released through her connection to the Catholic Church, Stein faithfully refused saying that Baptism should not be used as an unfair advantage; rather, she needed to share in the fate of her Jewish brothers and sisters.
The night between 3 and 4 August, the prisoners are transported from Amersfoort to the Lager of Westerbork. One of the policemen asked Sister Teresa Benedicta, who had been beaten with a rifle, what religion she belonged to. She answered him: “I'm a Catholic.”
The officer replied: “Not at all, you're a damned Jew.”
Then the men were separated from the women, husbands from wives, mothers from their children, and any communication was forbidden. It was from the Westerbork Camp that Sr. Teresa Benedicta sent out a last cry for help. She telephoned Utrecht and tried to obtain a temporary stay. She had hoped that the Swiss consulate in Amsterdam could save her save her. Here is the text of a telegram that she enclosed in a letter for the convent at Echt Carmel:
Drente - Westerbork
Barracks 36, 4 August 1942
Dear Mother and dear Sisters,
Tonight we left the distribution center at A. (Amersfoort) and arrived here. We were received kindly. Everything is being done so that we can be freed or at the least be able to stay here. All the Catholics are gathered together here, in our dormitory, all the nuns (two Trappists and a Dominican), Ruth (Kantorowicz), Alice (Reis), Dr. Meirowsky, and others. Two Trappist Fathers are also with us. In any case you must send us our personal papers, our ration cards and bread cards. Up to now we have been sustained entirely by the charity of others. We hope that you have found the (Swiss) Consul's address and that you have been in contact with him. We have asked numerous people to bring us your news. With us here are also the two nice young girls from Koningsbosch (Anne-Marie and Elfriede Goldschmidt). We are nonetheless calm and content. Clearly until now no Mass or Communion; perhaps that will come later. We are arranging to be able to live only an inner life. With all my heart. We shall certainly write soon.
Yours in corde Jesu,
Teresa Benedicta
If you answer, do not mention this letter.
Written on the margin was a cross and the date August 5.
A good number of eyewitness accounts of Edith's behavior during her days of imprisonment at Amersfoort and Westerbork spoke of her silence, her calm, her composure, her self-possession, her comforting and consoling of other women, her caring for the little ones, washing them and combing their hair and making sure that they were fed. Guards even said that she moved like an angel among those who lived in filth, squalor and unspeakable terror.
The Stein sisters were killed the same day they arrived, August 9, 1942, burned in the open air, and their ashes buried in a common grave or thrown into a nearby pond. Traveling with her, companions in suffering and martyrdom, besides her sister Rose, Carmelite tertiary and doorkeeper at Carmel in Echt, are other acquaintances: Alice Reis, born in Berlin, whom Edith sponsored at baptism; Dr. Ruth Kantorowicz, journalist and librarian, of Hamburg, whom Edith knew since childhood. Ruth wanted to become a Carmelite nun in Maastricht, but was not accepted into the novitiate. She went into the Ursuline convent in Velno as an external helper, where she was captured on August 2 1942.
Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was 51 years old at the time of her martyrdom. Even though her life was snuffed out during the Holocaust, her memory stands as a light undimmed in the midst of evil, darkness, and suffering. She is a symbol of the inherent unity between Jews and Christians. Dedicated to the good of all persons, she represents a moral force for all humanity.
On May 1, 1987, Edith Stein, a Carmelite nun and a victim of the Holocaust at Auschwitz, was beatified, along with Father Rupert Mayer, a Jesuit priest known for his resistance to the Nazis, during a Mass celebrated by Blessed John Paul II in Cologne, Germany.
On October 11, 1998 in St. Peter’s Square, Blessed John Paul II celebrated Mass during which he canonized Blessed Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, discalced Carmelite and martyr. In his homily, he asked that her witness might "reinforce even more the bridge of mutual understanding between Jews and Christians." John Paul II called her “an eminent daughter of Israel and a faithful daughter of the Church." He said:
"From now on, as we celebrate the memory of this new saint (every August 9), we cannot fail to remember from year to year the 'Shoah' (the Holocaust), that savage plan of exterminating a people, which cost the lives of millions of Jewish brothers and sisters."
"Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross says to us all: Don't accept anything as truth if it is without love. And don't accept anything as love if it is without truth! One without the other is a harmful lie."
“Many of our contemporaries would want the Cross to be silenced. However, nothing is more eloquent than the Cross made silent! The true message of pain is a lesson of love. Love makes pain bear fruit and pain deepens love.”
On October 1, 1999, Blessed John Paul II declared St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross to be co-patron of Europe, along with St. Bridged of Sweeden and St. Catherine of Siena. John Paul said that together with the two great women, Teresa Benedicta represents that holiness that is for Europe “the secret of its past and the hope for its future.”
"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians..."
Martyrology of Edith Stein and her companions (August 2-9,1942)
Sister Charitas (Resi Bock) teacher
nun of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Born June 13, 1909 in Vienna
Arrested August 2, 1942 in the Mother House at Moerdijk
Killed August 9, 1942 at Auschwitz
Dr. Lisamaria Meirowsky
pediatrician, Dominican Tertiary
Born September 7, 1904 in Graudenz
Arrested August 2, 1942 in the Trappist Abbey at Berkel-Enschot
Killed August 9, 1942 at Auschwitz
Brother Wolfgang (Fritz Rosenbaum) Franciscan
Born May 27, 1915 in Witten
Arrested August 2,1942 in the Franciscan convent at Woerden
Killed September 30, 1942 at Auschwitz
Alice Reis, nurse
Born September 17 in Berlin
Arrested August 2, 1942 in the Convent of the Good Shepherd Sisters at Almelo
Killed August 9, 1942 at Auschwitz
Father Ignatius (George Löb), Trappist
Born September 25, 1909 at Hoensbroek
Arrested August 2, 1942 in Koningshoeven Abbey near Tilburg
Killed August 19, 1942 at Auschwitz
Sister Maria-Theresia (Door Löb) Trappist
Born October 22, 1911 in Sawah-Loento (Indonesia)
Arrested August 2, 1942 in Koningshoord Abbey at Berkel-Enschot
Killed September 30, 1942 at Auschwitz
Sister Mirjam (Else Michaelis)
accountant, Sister of St. Joseph at Trier
Born March 31, 1899 in Berlin
Arrested August 2, 1942 at the Franciscan convent of Nonnenwerth at Marienwaard
Killed August 9, 1942 at Auschwitz
Sister Judith Mendes da Costa, Dominican
Born August 25, 1895 in Amsterdam
Arrested August 2, 1942 in the convent at Bilthoven, released August 15 from the camp at Westerbork, February 25 1944 deported to Theresienstadt, transported to Auschwitz 16, May 1944
Killed July 7, 1944 at Auschwitz
Rose Stein, Carmelite tertiary, doorkeeper of the convent
Born December 13, 1883 at Lublinitz
Arrested August 2, 1942 in the Carmel convent at Echt
Killed August 9, 1942 at Auschwitz
Dr. Edith Stein - Sister Teresia Benedicta a Cruce
Carmelite nun, philosopher
Born October12, 1891 in Breslau
Arrested August 2, 1942 in the Carmel of Echt
Killed August 9, 1942 at Auschwitz
Father Nivardus (Ernst Löb) Trappist
Born October 29, 1913 in Sawah-Loento (Indonesia)
Arrested August 2, 1942 in Koninshoeven Abbey near Tilburg
Killed August 19, 1942 at Auschwitz
Edith Stein
“...Let's get to the point: Are we Catholic academics in contact with organized workers, the Swiss Women's Movement, the Women's Union, and the Christian Socialists? We are not. Why? Certainly the fault lies on both sides, but it is equally certain it is indeed on both sides. Do we grasp social problems, the burning problems of today? Do they concern us also? Or are we waiting until others find some solution or until we are submerged by the billows of chaos? Is such an attitude worthy of an academic woman? Must we not try to help in deed as well as in thought? I believe this is a theoretical matter primarily in that we should investigate connections and causes so that we may know what help is needed and how to give it. Concretely, we must proceed through Caritas, that means that our love of God must find practical expression. There are manifold ways to fit manifold needs. Let us not be stuck in a rut. We must get in touch with the social ferment of the masses and understand their physical and spiritual needs.
In Cardinal Faulhaber's commentary on the vesper psalms, he explains the middle verse of the "Magnificat. "He writes: “Who still dares to say that politics has nothing to do with religion and that souls directed towards God, especially women, should stay far from public life? If the quiet virgin of Nazareth, her soul resting completely in God her savior, could be concerned with the happenings on the world scene (middle verse of the Magnificat), then religious people, including women of course, dare not be indifferent as to whether the arm of God is seen in world events. They must not be unconcerned as to whether the God- willed spiritual, political, and economic order is established. Nor may they be unconcerned when dogmatic intellectuals confuse the people with their knowledge when political leaders strike out God's name from public life, or when capitalistic exploiters are upsetting the economic order. . ."
Edith Stein 3The example of Mary is relevant here. She is the ideal type of woman who knew how to unite tenderness with power. She stood under the cross. She had previously concerned herself about the human condition, observed it, understood it! In her son's tragic hour she appeared publicly. Perhaps the moment has almost come for the Catholic woman also to stand with Mary and with the Church under the cross! Concretely: I am not asking the Swiss Catholic academic woman to decide today whether or not woman should take part in public life (it would even be childish presumption to ask for this). But I believe there is something that must be promoted in the name of sound human reason, in the interest of our families, our nation, and our Church. It is that you take an interest in the question, reflect on it, and study it objectively in the light of contemporary development.
...Perhaps through the course of the centuries, our attitude in the Church has been too passive. Perhaps we have left it to exceptional people "to prove the exception to the rule," people like Teresa of Jesus, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, etc. The twentieth century demands more! I am thinking specifically of the atheistic movement. How can we oppose this phalanx? Pope Pius XI has already sanctioned the lay apostolate; in fact, he has summoned us to it. Should Catholic action stay a catchword and a cliché which resounds through the assemblies but does not ignite?
Do we understand what the so-called Liturgical Movement is all about? It is certainly not about aesthetics. No, it is about a deeper sharing in the life of Christ and witness to it by means of the Church...”
Taken from the works of Edith Stein as published by ICS Publications in the book "The Collected Works of Edith Stein", Volume II "Essays on Woman", 1987.