From Husserlian phenomenology to Auschwitz-Birkenau
Every now and then come critical or monographic works concerning the
most popular figures or most widely read works that mark a fresh start,
most diligently studied or analyzed.
With regard to the immense bibliography on the life and writings of
Edith Stein (1891-1942) , a protagonist of German philosophy in the
epoch of Husserlian phenomenology, Francesco Salvarani's book on her
(Edith Stein. La grande figlia
d'Israele, della Chiesa e del Carmelo,
Milan, Edizioni Ares, 2009, € 25, afterword
by Angela Ales Bello), achieves both an updated existential
investigation and a "vertical" scrutiny of a rare vocation to holiness.
Not for nothing did this book require of its author, a priest from
Emilia and a former lecturer in literature and philosophy, 20 years of
Edith Stein, the 11th child of a deeply religious Jewish couple,
whose lively and brilliant intelligence was evident from her childhood,
very soon showed an inclination for a rationalistic vision of life. This
was followed by a clean break with religion ("in full awareness and by
my own free choice I stopped praying").
Having reached adulthood, in 1911 she enrolled in the faculty of
German studies, history and psychology at the University of Breslau and,
on discovering the phenomenological current of Edmund Husserl
(1859-1938), moved to the Gottingen University to take his courses (she
was later to become his assistant and disciple and even edited some of
his writings after his death).
Husserl had recently asserted a new concept of truth as a return to
things in themselves, "phenomena" rather than mere appearances,
countering objective hypothetical realities, "phenomena", as original
manifestations of the conscience verified through events or elements in
their pure form, essence and idea.
The phenomenological procedure therefore demands the preliminary
suspension of every opinion or prejudice, of all common sense or
scientific knowledge, which is why every theory is placed in parentheses
and the phenomenon emerges in its authenticity or, one might say, "in
flesh and blood".
It is true that towards the end Husserl sought to develop his
philosophy in a transcendental sense, from which terrain Stein distanced
herself; but it also remains true that his "doctrine", understood in its
totality, led many of his students to the Christian faith. To this
the first of them and more intensely than others
entrusted her existence.
Edith also encountered Max Scheler, a philosopher
convert, who was to direct his young friend and colleague's attention to
as well as Adolf Reinach, the philosopher of law.
When the bomb of Serbian regicide exploded, the resulting Great War
was to see her working with the Red Cross, contrary to her mother's
wishes, and yet continuing, among the sick, the doctors, transfers and
travels, to write her thesis: "On the problem of empathy". She defended
it at Fribourg with Husserl in 1917, obtaining
summa cum laude.
On the way to Fribourg, she stopped off to stay with a friend in
"We entered the cathedral for a few minutes, and while we were there
in respectful silence, a woman came in with a shopping basket and knelt
briefly in a pew to say a short prayer. People enter synagogues and
Protestant churches only for religious functions. Here, on the contrary,
someone entered an empty church, in the midst of her daily routine, as
if to take part in an intimate conversation". This memory, which lived
on in her mind, was to bear fruit.
Everything accelerated with the death of her friend Reinach. On
visiting his widow, whom she had expected to find overwhelmed by grief
or despair, Edith was on the contrary impressed by her serenity. What
was not in Stein's plans was in the plan of God. She realized this in
returning to the speculative key of her phenomenology, of a philosophy
of history of whose limits she was aware. It was a history which, she
felt, was itself only minimally in human hands: "I am getting nearer and
nearer to an absolutely positive Christianity. It has freed me from a
depressing life, giving me the strength to accept life once again and
On her way to conversion, in her wide
reading Edith Stein came across Kierkegaard in the Training in
Christianity (which she did not agree with) and Teresa of Avila
precisely as a reaction to the pages of the Danish philosopher.
One summer night in 1921, holding in her hands a biography of the
Saint, she exclaimed: "This is the truth!".
Something new and definitive took place
within her, in the deepest clarity of her spirit, at the end of her
assiduous and demanding search. Edith read her own destiny in that of
Teresa. Her future was written: to become a Christian, a Catholic, a
Carmelite: despite the haughty, at times lacerating opposition of her
mother, who was to reach the point of turning her out of the house,
anguish and death.
On New Year's Day in 1922, she was
baptized, on 2 February the following year she was confirmed, but it was
only on the evening of 14 October 1933, that she was admitted to the
ever more deeply desired cloister.
In the meantime
learning from St Thomas "that it was possible to put knowledge at the
service of God", she accepted to teach in Speyer, concerning herself
with the most underprivileged social classes. She lectured in Germany,
Austria and Switzerland, combining phenomenology and the spirit of
scholastic philosophy, divulgation and the quest for the Divine will;
she also accepted a post as lecturer at Munster after she was forbidden
to teach in Speyer.
Hitler had already come to power and
since his battle against the Jews could not but include hatred of
Christianity, in Edith Stein this was summed up in a double persecution.
Not even after crossing the threshold of
the Carmelite convent was she safe: on 2 August 1942, with her sister
Rosa, she was arrested by the S.S. and taken by force to the
concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.