In this article, Gino Concetti reviews a recent study of
Edith Stein, who will be beatified by the Holy Father during his
Apostolic Pilgrimage to Germany in May.
The atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews included a
famous victim: Edith Stein, sacrificed in one of the gas chambers of
Auschwitz in 1942.
Edith was born at Breslau (Wroclaw) on 12 October 1891, on Yom
Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In Edith Stein. Dalla Cattedra al lager
("From the Lecture Hall to the Concentration Camp".
published by Edizioni Messaggero, Padua), Marina Vittoria Borghese
portrays her whole life, with particular attention to her immolation
because of Hitler's anti-Semitism.
The symptoms of anti-Semitism were already seen in 1881. A meeting
was organized in Berlin, during which slogans were launched in favour of
depriving the Jews of their civil rights. The manifestations did not
take place only in Germany; in Russia too, processions were formed,
crying: "Death to the Jews". Edith was a Jew, like her family.
Her father died in 1893. On 12 October 1897, she asked to go to
school, and received permission. In 1908, she enrolled at the grammar
school in Breslau. In 1911, she matriculated at the faculty of
philosophy in the local university. In 1913, she transferred to
Göttingen, in order to follow the courses of Edmund Husserl. Husserl
too was a Jew, and had shown his exceptional abilities in mathematics
and the sciences. Born on 8 April 1859 at Prosnitz in Moravia, he had
attended the University of Leipzig, and then went to the University of
Berlin, having already published works of outstanding value. Later, he
went to Vienna, where he had a great religious crisis and converted to
Christianity. From 1901, he was at the head of the faculty of philosophy
in Göttingen, and he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for philosophy.
Borghese writes that his school was more cenacle than school. Edith
chose Göttingen in order to follow the man who was rightly held to be
"the greatest living philosopher".
At Göttingen, Edith lived the normal university life: study,
conversations, contemplations, excursions. But gradually, as the days
went by and she lived her life, she underwent a transformation. Borghese
writes: "The face of God became faded in Edith's memory. Her
religious practices stopped. The crisis did not bring her into
opposition to God, in whom she never disbelieved; but she lived without
God, she forgot him voluntarily, she deliberately disobeyed the urgent
exhortations of her mother".
Although she was admitted into Husserl's cenacle, Edith did not agree
with the master when he published his Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology.
In order to take her out of her state of depression, her friends
invited her to a lecture by Max Scheler, who was likewise a convert from
Judaism and was constantly entranced by the beauty of the Catholic
faith. Edith now forgot her mealtimes, nourishing herself on ideas and
hopes; she was more concerned for the spirit than for the body.
On 3 August 1916, she took her doctorate with the highest marks. She
dealt with the problem of Einfühlung [intuition, understanding].
In the meantime, the war was raging, with hundreds of thousands of
casualties on all the battle fronts, causing Edith untold suffering.
Husserl went to Freiburg, and wanted Edith to follow him as his
assistant. She was not satisfied by fame in the university world.
"I have not found the key to my existence", she wrote,
"at any rate, what I have done has not been able to make me feel
that I am in my proper place in the world". Among the victims of
the war was also her friend Adolf Reinach, the one who had introduced
her to Husserl. Edith set out on the journey to console his widow. This
was her first meeting with the Cross. Borghese writes: "For the
first time, Edith could contemplate, in all its luminous reality, the
Church born from the passion of Christ that saves and redeems". And
she goes on: "In that instant, her incredulity crumbled, her
Judaism faded away, and Christ rose in his radiance before her eyes:
Christ in the mystery of the cross".
While she was staying with Pauline, Edith discovered another truth:
"the mission of woman in the redemption of the pain that afflicts
the world". She expressed it thus: "Woman's mission is to
protect life, to keep families united. It cannot be irrelevant to her
whether or not the life of others, the life of the peoples, takes a
direction that ensures serenity and prosperity for the families and a
sure future for the young".
Meanwhile, her studies continued. In 1922, she published two books: Psychic
Causality and Individual and Community. The problem of
faith became ever more urgent in Edith, but she was slow to accept it.
She wrote: "I refuse my adherence to this authentic and
living faith, and I do not permit it to become active in me".
In the summer of 1921, she visited Conrad-Martius. By chance, she found
the autobiography of Teresa of Avila in the library, read it at once and
was overwhelmed by it. When her friends returned, she confessed to them
that she had finally found the truth. Her conversion had
practically taken place. She went to church, heard Mass and asked the
priest to be baptized at once. The date was fixed for the beginning of
the following year, and Edith received baptism and became a member of
the Catholic Church on 1 January 1922. When she told her mother of this,
she burst into tears. Edith went to Dr Schwind, canon of the Cathedral
of Speyer, who became her spiritual father. Through his intervention,
she became professor of the German language and literature at the
teacher training college. While she taught, she occupied her free time
in translating the works of St Thomas Aquinas. She spent seven years at
the Institute of St Mary Magdalene in Speyer.
Father Przywara organized a cycle of lectures for her in almost all
the cities of Germany, Austria and Poland. In 1922, she was named
professor at the Higher Pedagogical Institute in Münster. She stayed at
the Marianum and at once was on friendly terms with the sisters. In the
evenings, instead of resting, she worked on a new book, Finite and
Infinite Being. One evening, when she visited a Catholic
friend, she learned of the Nazis' atrocities against the Jews, and was
deeply disturbed. She decided to go to Rome and inform the Pope. In the
meantime, she wrote him a letter in which she said "My people and I
are facing extermination". Edith was forced to give up teaching,
and was already aware of the Calvary that awaited her.
After the death of her spiritual director, Dr Schwind, Edith met
another friendly priest, the Abbot of the monastery of Beuron, who
supported her in the difficulties and opened her up to new spiritual
conquests. Her vocation to the contemplative life had already emerged.
She had been offered a teaching post in South America, but Edith refused
it: "I cannot teach any longer", she reflected, "I cannot
work any longer as a laywoman in the Church; this is a sign that I can
finally enter Carmel". She had dreamed of taking this step since
she had received baptism at the beginning of 1922.
Under the guidance of Dr Cosack, she knocked at the door of the
Carmel in Cologne. She had to wait for a long time. Finally, she
was called. When the prioress questioned her, Edith replied: "I
have been with the Dominican Sisters for eight years, but I have never
thought of entering there. I have been given spiritual direction by the
Abbot of Beuron, but I have never thought of becoming a
Benedictine nun. I know that the Lord is calling me to Carmel". On
14 October 1933, Edith was received by the nuns into the Carmel of
Cologne. On 15 April 1934, she received the habit, taking the name
Benedicta of the Cross. She made her simple profession on 21 April 1935.
The new Nazi regime was accentuating its racial struggle, and the
anti-Semitic laws of Nuremberg were issued in 1935. Those Jews who could
do so, emigrated. In 1938, the laws became still more cruel. The laws
obliged the Jews to give an account of their possessions, to prefix the
name Israel in their passport, to add the letter "J" to their
identity documents and, for women, to add the name Sarah.
In order to control the whole nation, Hitler subdivided Germany into
administrative districts called Gau, putting a loyal man
at the head of each. The Gau was divided into provinces, rural
and urban districts, and suburbs, each distinct. Those who were utterly
faithful to Hitler dominated the whole situation and knew the entire
When Edith, entered Carmel, she intended to follow her own vocation
in response to the call of God. Accordingly, she took the religious life
seriously. She was asked to engage in literary activity, which was
useful for the monastery. She wrote articles, introductions,
commentaries, and philosophical interpretations dealing with
Christianity. She worked on a weighty book: Finite Being and Eternal
Being. She was asked to write a monograph about St John of
the Cross. She began also to write The Science of the Cross.
In 1938, Cologne, like all the other German cities, was invaded by
posters inviting the people to vote for Hitler. These were falsified
elections. The secret police, the infamous Gestapo, had eliminated the
Catholic opposition. In the Carmel, there was fear that the same fate
awaited the nuns. Sister Benedicta opposed the voting with all her
power; she urged the nuns, "I beg you, think of your conscience,
not of the consequences for the monastery and for our persons. It is
better to die than to vote 'yes'. Hitler is the greatest enemy of God,
and he will bring us all to ruin".
An electoral delegation came to the monastery to gather the votes of
the sisters. Despite perplexity and reservations, the superior and the
other sisters voted. Edith Stein did not vote, for she could not:
the superior said that she was not an "Arian". The delegation
reacted visibly to this news, and noted, beside her name, that she had
not voted. When Sister Benedicta Stein heard of this, she said:
"This is the shadow of the Cross that is falling upon my
people". Fearing the worst, the sisters thought of having Edith
emigrate to Palestine; but Hitler had already forbidden this. They asked
therefore that Edith and Rosa Stein be given asylum at the monastery of
On 21 April 1938, Edith-Benedicta made her solemn vows. During the
rite, she offered herself as a holocaust to God. The contacts with the
monastery of Echt led to the decision that Edith should leave for
Holland. Dr Paul Streath, a doctor who was a friend of the sisters, took
charge of this matter and accompanied Edith into Holland, through the
nets of the police. The passport which the doctor had obtained for Edith
contained neither the letter "J" nor the name Sarah. Edith was
joined by her sister Rosa. They found serenity in Holland. Edith noted
in her diary: "My family is scattered in all the world, but only
God knows why!'
In 1940, the Germans occupied Holland, and Hitler's Germany set up
its spy network in the whole Dutch territory. The Carmel at Echt, which
had been thought secure, stood under the nightmare of the threat, and so
it was planned to transfer the two sisters to a Swiss, monastery. But
the monastery at Le Paquier could take only Edith. Yet once again,
Benedicta refused to be transferred without her sister, who was still a
postulant. The permission for both of them arrived later, but it was too
late. Events rushed onwards. The military curfew prevented the citizens
from moving freely, and Edith and Rosa could not leave the monastery. An
agent of the Gestapo knocked at the monastery door and asked to speak to
the Stein sisters. Probably it was not a betrayal that had revealed
their presence, but rather the rigorous control of the post by the
Gestapo itself. The agent himself filled out the passports of Edith and
Rosa in accordance with the racist regulations.
The Dutch episcopate reacted against the treacheries and the
vexations by the army of invasion, but the Gestapo was inflexible: on 27
July 1942, the general commissioner of the Reich for Holland issued an
order which said: "Since the Catholic Bishops have meddled in
affairs that have nothing to do with them, all the Catholic Jews will be
deported by the end of this week. No intervention in their favour will
be respected". On 2 August 1942, at five o'clock in the afternoon,
Edith was taken away by two officers of the SS, together with her sister
Rosa. The mother superior in her simplicity was at first deceived, then
she tried to defend the two sisters, but the two officers were
intransigent and threatened the destruction of the monastery. Edith,
encouraging her sister, said, as she left the monastery, "Come, let
us go for our people". The two officers of the SS dragged them so
brutally that the people protested. No one knew what their destination
would be. The prioress of Echt received a letter from Sister Benedicta
dated 5 August 1942, which said. "I am happy about everything. One
can gain a science of the Cross only if one feels the weight of the
Cross pressing down with all its force". On 6 August, Edith was
able to send a second letter through a. sister present in the camp, and
in it she revealed her great concern about survival. Edith was at the
camp of Westerbork and lacked everything, including clothing. Finally,
the sisters were informed of this.
On the night of 6-7 August 1942, the Stein sisters, with other
prisoners, were forced to board a train that was going to the dreary
marshes of Silesia, to Auschwitz. It was the train of death. When the
war was over, the Nuremberg trials shed light on the journeys of death
and on that of the two Stein sisters. Their name was written on the list
of transports to Auschwitz-Bikenau on 7 August 1942. The train arrived
at its destination on 9 August, after two days' journey with packed
wagons; it transported in all 987 men, women and children. The terrible
thirst in the month of August and the discomforts were the prelude to
the martyrdom. The rest is the "rite" of death. Edith and
Rosa, with other women and other deported persons, were sent to the gas
chambers, and then their naked bodies were thrown into a common ditch.
Edith Stein left the words: "I believe in God. I believe that the
nature of God is love, I believe that man exists in love, is upheld by
God, is saved by God". This is her essential message in a world
that is filled with blood by absurd and ferocious lies. Edith Stein is
not dead. She is the symbol of a genocide that was carried out by
satanic hatred. She helps those who are in anguish because of other
aberrations to rediscover the light: the Christ of hope and of love.