|Edith Stein carries the light of Christ during the
horror of Auschwitz
occasion of St Teresa Benedicta's feast day, 9 August, the following
overview of her biography is published in remembrance of its author, the
late Fr Gino Concetti, OFM, a past colleague and friend who died on 28
Among the known and less-known victims of Nazism, Edith
Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
is the most representative figure of Christian holiness, expressed in
the faith and witness of her martyrdom at the notorious extermination
camp of Auschwitz. This is how both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have
At the Rite for her
Beatification in the Cathedral of Cologne on 1 May 1987, Pope John Paul
II said that in her the Church honours "a daughter of Israel who, during
the Nazi persecution, as a Catholic, remained united with faith and love
to the Crucified Lord Jesus Christ and as a Jew, to her people". He also
reaffirmed her holiness and martyrdom during the Mass for her
Canonization in Rome on October 1998.
Benedict XVI echoed the
same sentiment with his Visit and Pilgrimage in May 2006 to the place of
her martyrdom, Auschwitz: "In the face of the horror of Auschwitz there
is no other response than the Cross of Christ: Love descended to the
very depths of the abyss of evil to save man in his core" (General
Audience, 31 May 2006; L'Osservatore Romano English edition,
7 June 2006, p. 11). With her oblation, Edith sealed the truth of
Christ's resurrectional power manifest in the Cross, the word she chose
on becoming a Carmelite as an integral part of her name.
Edith was taken to
Auschwitz by the Gestapo, who forced her from the Carmelite Monastery of
Echt in Holland, together with her sister Rosa. It was 2 August 1942 and
she was in chapel.
The two women, Valentino
Savoldi recounts (Edith Stein, Luce nella notte di Auschwitz,
Elledici-Velar, 2007) were taken with other Jewish converts to
Westerbork Transit Camp in "revenge for the protests made by the
Catholic Bishops of The Netherlands against the pogroms (organized
violent anti-Jewish attacks) and the deportation of Jews".
In Edith a divine plan was
clearly unfolding. She was born in Breslau on 12 October 1891, the
youngest of 11, and was raised in the religion of her parents. At age
14, she lost her faith and abandoned prayer.
"A purely rationalistic
relationship with the 'concept' of God brought Edith to reject the
Father and, consequently, every religious practice. At the same time,
she focused on the search for intellectual values which she claimed were
loftier than those of the Jewish faith".
In 1911 she finished
secondary school and enrolled at the University of Breslau to study
grammar and history. Edith herself described her basic inclination:
"When I was a young student at secondary school I was a radical
feminist. Then I lost interest in the whole issue. Now I am in search of
purely objective solutions".
In 1913, she attended the
university lectures given by Edmund Husserl and became his disciple and
assistant. When the First World War broke out she wrote: "I now no
longer have a life of my own". She acquired a nursing diploma and worked
in an Austrian military hospital. In 1916, she followed Husserl to
Freiburg, and in 1917 obtained a doctorate
summa cum laude.
Three signs preceded and
determined her conversion. When she was 16, Edith saw a working-class
woman enter the Cathedral of Frankfurt with her shopping basket. This
sparked an "impulse" of faith within Edith: the Cathedral itself was
empty but God was in it, waiting. This was the first sign.
The second was linked to
her friendship with Adolf Reinach, Husserl's assistant in Gottingen, and
his wife. When Adolf died in Flanders in November 1917, Edith went to Göttingen
to visit his widow, whom she thought must have been overwhelmed by
Upon seeing her almost
serene resignation, Edith "instantly intuited the power of faith in
She said of this
experience, "For the first time I saw the Church, tangible before me,
born from the Redeemer's suffering in his victory over the grip of
death. It was the moment in which my unbelief was shattered and Christ's
light shone through".
The third sign was God's
presence. Edith perceived it in 1921 while reading the autobiography of
St Teresa of Avila. A new vision blossomed within her. She stated: "When
I had finished the book, I said to myself: this is the truth". Later,
she was to confirm: "My longing for truth was my one prayer".
Savoldi comments: "Edith's
return to God can be considered as illogical Love bursting into her
heart which was thirsting after truth".
On 1 January 1922, Edith
began her sacramental journey by receiving Baptism. She was then
confirmed on the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.
Her desire to withdraw to a
convent to become a cloistered Carmelite nun grew ever stronger but her
spiritual directors prevented her from taking this step immediately.
From 1923 to 1931 she taught German language and literature at the
Dominican Sisters' school and teachers' training college in Speyer and
also began her philosophical work
Potency and Act.
In 1932, she became a lecturer at the Educational
Institute at Münster.
She continued to study and write and came into contact with important
figures including Jacques Maritain and Martin Heidegger, whom she had
previously known in Freiburg.
The Science of the
Cross, on the works of St John of the Cross, stands out among her
writings of these years. She developed the conviction that one "can only
gain a knowledge of the Cross by experiencing it personally".
In 1933 the "dark night" of
the Jewish persecution fell on Germany and, with the ascent to power of
Nazism, assumed dramatic and tragic tones.
During the hour of
Adoration on 30 April 1933, Edith felt definitively called to the
cloistered life among the Carmelites. First, however, she went to
Breslau to say a tearful goodbye to her mother and relatives.
Edith entered the monastery
of the Discalced Carmelites of Cologne on 14 October. She was clothed on
14 April 1934 and took the new name of Sr Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
In 1938 she wrote: "Beneath
the Cross I understood the destiny of God's people.... Indeed, today I
know far better what it means to be the Lord's bride under the sign of
On 21 April 1938 she took
her perpetual vows with the promise: "Henceforth, my only vocation will
be to love".
In November 1938 Nazi
hatred toward the Jews flared up and the Carmelite Prioress in Cologne
decided to send Edith Stein abroad. She left for the Netherlands on New
Year's Eve 1939. Her new home was the Carmel at Echt.
On 9 June 1939, she
professed in her spiritual testament: "Even now I accept the death that
God has prepared for me in complete submission and with joy as being his
most holy will for me. I ask the Lord to accept my life and my death so
that the Lord will be accepted by his People and that his Kingdom may
come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world".
The Gestapo arrested her on
2 August 1942 while she was praying in the chapel and took her to the
infamous concentration camp of Auschwitz together with her sister Rosa.
The Church, first through John Paul II then Benedict XVI, honours her as
a martyr of the faith.
Savoldi ends his biography:
"St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross stands as a marvellous figure invoking
peace, inviting dialogue, and as a towering model for acquiring the
logic of the Gospel in its fullness".