Eighty years ago on Tuesday, a 50-year-old nun was killed at the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz.
Today, she is a canonized saint and a co-patroness of Europe. She is recognized as one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, a notable philosopher, a martyr, and a potential future Doctor of the Church.
She was born Edith Stein in the German city of Breslau (now Wrocław in Poland), the youngest of seven surviving children of a Jewish family. She died on Aug. 9, 1942, as the Carmelite Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
What do we know about her last days? Why did her death become a source of tension between Catholics and Jews? And does she remain relevant today?
The Pillar takes a look:
How did Edith Stein die?
Fr. John Sullivan, O.C.D., compiled the 2002 anthology “Edith Stein: Essential Writings,” which scholars have called one of the best entry points for English speakers seeking to know more about the saint. Sullivan also wrote the book’s introduction.
The Discalced Carmelite priest told The Pillar that the chain of events leading to Stein’s death began with a “courageous letter in defense of Dutch Jews” written by the bishops of the Netherlands, then under Nazi occupation. The letter was read out in all churches on July 26, 1942.
The Nazis responded to the Dutch bishops’ letter by increasing the tempo of deportations and targeting Jews who had converted to Catholicism before the war.
Stein was arrested by Gestapo officers on Aug. 2, 1942. Her last words before she left the monastery were addressed to Rosa, who had also converted to Catholicism and was serving as an extern helper for the Carmelite community. “Come, we are going for our people,” she said.
Anne Costa, author of “Embracing Edith Stein: Wisdom for Women from St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross,” noted that the two women were transported north by van to the Nazi transit camp at Amersfoort, “where she and her fellow prisoners were treated with brutality.”
“On Aug. 4, Edith reached the Westerbork Transit Center where 1,200 Catholic Jews were separated from the others,” she told The Pillar.
“There are documented sightings of Edith here where her sense of calm and compassion for others was observed and commented upon. She stuck out among the thousands as a presence of quiet and peaceful resignation and while at Westerbork, she is quoted as saying: ‘The world is made up of opposites, but in the end, nothing remains of these contrasts. What only remains is great love. How is it possible for it to be otherwise?’”
Fr. Sullivan said: “Within a week of the swift roundup of Catholic Jews, [Edith Stein] and other victims of a Nazi reprisal arrived by train at Auschwitz death camp in occupied Poland.”
“Postwar scholarship has established that she was immediately processed down the Auschwitz railroad ‘rampa’ [ramp]. (No time to imprint on her arm the infamous, heinous numbered tattoo of a camp inmate.)”
“Trucks took the condemned, non-admitted prisoners away from the Auschwitz I camp to Auschwitz-Birkenau. At that camp section, or Auschwitz II, in an improvised chamber called the White House, canisters of Zyklon B gas killed them off. In an adjacent field, because industrial-sized crematoria were not yet installed, the bodies were piled up and burned in the open air with used petroleum products.”
What was the meaning of her death?
Decades later, a debate emerged about the meaning of Stein’s death. Explaining the genesis of the dispute, Eugene J. Fisher, distinguished professor of theology at Saint Leo University in Florida, told The Pillar: “Stein was a Jewish convert to Catholicism and, as a nun, became a well-known writer and speaker. She famously said that she wanted to ‘offer herself’ as a sacrifice for ‘her people,’ the Jews.”
“She was taken by the Nazis and died at Auschwitz. The tension was that many Catholics thought that they were ‘her people,’ not the Jews, and that she had died as a Catholic martyr, while Jews insisted, rightly, that she was killed by the Nazis because she was a Jew.”
The controversy intensified when Pope John Paul II announced that he would beatify the Carmelite sister. Jewish leaders expressed concern that by presenting a convert from Judaism for veneration by Catholics, the Church might inspire organized efforts to proselytize Jews.
The beatification ceremony took place in the German city of Cologne on May 1, 1987.
The U.S. bishops’ committee for ecumenical and interreligious affairs issued an “advisory” message to all Catholics that same month. It underlined that “in no way can the beatification of Edith Stein be understood by Catholics as giving impetus to unwarranted proselytizing among the Jewish community.”
Rather, the committee said, the beatification should be “a unique occasion for joint Catholic-Jewish reflection and reconciliation.”
“In honoring Edith Stein, the Church wishes to honor all the millions of Jewish victims of the Shoah. Christian veneration of Edith Stein does not lessen but rather strengthens our need to preserve and honor the memory of the Jewish victims,” it said.
“Catholic veneration of Edith Stein will necessarily contribute to a continuing and deepened examination of conscience regarding sins of commission and omission perpetrated by Christians against Jews during the dark years of World War II, as well as reflection on those Christians who risked their very lives to save their Jewish brothers and sisters.”
Prof. Fisher, the former associate director of the U.S. bishops’ secretariat for ecumenical and interreligious affairs, said he believed that the debate - in which he was heavily involved - ultimately led to greater understanding between Catholics and Jews.
“Catholics learned much from Jews about the ancient Christian teaching of contempt against Jews and Judaism and how those vile anti-Jewish teachings paved the way for modern racial antisemitism, though they were not racist,” he told The Pillar.
“For the Nazis, religion made no difference, just the racial background of their victims. Jews involved learned why Catholics would consider this Jewish victim of the Shoah to be a Christian martyr.”
Fr. Sullivan, the chair of the Institute of Carmelite Studies in Washington, D.C., said that Stein’s family had difficulty understanding her 1922 conversion to Catholicism, which came after the philosopher read St. Teresa of Ávila’s autobiography.
“Edith Stein was a convert to the Catholic faith from a practical atheistic state in which she had already withdrawn from Jewish practice. Most of the Jewish people she knew did not welcome her decision to become a Christian, aside from her sister Rosa,” he observed.
“She felt, in her own way, that her embracing the faith vision of the Catholic Church opened the door to a welcome appreciation on her part of her Jewish roots. She drew upon Catholic teaching to enlarge her own spiritual vision of things. This did not necessarily gain approval from her family members.”
Fr. Sullivan continued: “When years later the Church acknowledged her as a vessel of holiness in modern times, many Jewish people felt it was an unfair appropriation of the Holocaust suffering by Catholicism.”
“It was not, however, any attempt to lessen the horror of Shoah, rather the recognition of the mysterious way God wanted someone born in Judaism to pass through the crucible of incredible death as a Christian relying on theological principles provided by her new faith home.”
“No one should reject any Jewish faith tenets as they revere the martyr Teresa Benedicta, and we hope that no one should regard her as a kind of Trojan horse designed to weaken Jewish devotion for their beliefs.”
When John Paul II canonized Stein in Rome on Oct. 11, 1998, he addressed the debate about her death with carefully chosen words.
In his homily, he said: “Dear brothers and sisters! Because she was Jewish, Edith Stein was taken with her sister Rosa and many other Catholic Jews from the Netherlands to the concentration camp in Auschwitz, where she died with them in the gas chambers.”
“Today we remember them all with deep respect. A few days before her deportation, the woman religious had dismissed the question about a possible rescue: ‘Do not do it! Why should I be spared? Is it not right that I should gain no advantage from my baptism? If I cannot share the lot of my brothers and sisters, my life, in a certain sense, is destroyed.’”
“From now on, as we celebrate the memory of this new saint from year to year, we must also remember the Shoah, that cruel plan to exterminate a people - a plan to which millions of our Jewish brothers and sisters fell victim. May the Lord let his face shine upon them and grant them peace.”
Asked what he thought was the meaning of Stein’s death, Fr. Sullivan said that Prof. Fisher summed it up well at a commemoration of her canonization at the Catholic University of America in 1999:
“[Some pose the question of her martyrdom:] ‘Oh you declare Edith Stein a martyr, but she was killed by the Nazis not because she was a Catholic but because she was a Jew.’ To that, the pope [John Paul II] agrees, but he adds she was also a Catholic martyr because what precipitated her being picked up was a very strong protest by the Dutch bishops in the face of warnings by the Nazis. [She was not] ... declared solely a Catholic martyr ... so the pope clearly declared she died a daughter of Israel, she died as a Jew.”
Fr. Sullivan added: “As occurs in other complex situations, one should avoid an ‘either/or’ attitude and apply instead a ‘both/and’ view of the Jewish-Catholic inclusion of those rounded up on Aug. 2, 1942, in the Netherlands, among the millions of Jews whom Nazi Germany persecuted and wiped off the face of the earth.”
Anne Costa told The Pillar that the significance of Stein’s death was found in “her complete self-surrender and willingness to ‘die for her people’ and lay down her life for her friends (and enemies) in the same way that Jesus did.”
“She fully embraced what it meant to be both Jewish and Christian. And while there has been controversy in the aftermath of her becoming a saint in the Catholic Church, I believe she would abhor that division, as supported by the quote above,” she said.
Is Edith Stein still relevant?
In photographs, Edith Stein seems an austere, otherworldly figure. But, as Fr. Sullivan pointed out in the introduction to her selected writings, she believed that Carmelites should not retreat from the world, but rather live deeply within it as contemplatives.
“At a time when ‘flight from the world,’ or fuga mundi, was the safe recipe for any Catholic earnestly searching to lead a holy life, Stein said one can find God in the world by bringing God to the world,” the priest wrote in his 2002 book.
Fr. Sullivan told The Pillar that Stein’s life and work continued to resonate 80 years after her death for many reasons.
“She has wide-ranging appeal for tackling contemporary struggles in society: respect for the truth; compassion and empathy for younger people experiencing difficulties with their educational/vocational development; a warning case of victimization of innocent individuals by state terrorism; consistent promotion of women in all spheres of society; encouragement for professionalism among women; role modeling for philosophical research; and reliance on a contemplative approach to personal destiny,” he said.
Prof. Fisher agreed that Stein remained relevant, emphasizing that her story “is still one from which both Jews and Catholics can learn, and come together in dialogue.”
Anne Costa suggested that Stein’s thought could continue to contribute to “greater self-knowledge for women” and “the betterment of society as a whole.”
“Her work deeply influenced and informed the work on John Paul II in what is now known as Theology of the Body, which is a direct response to the gender confusion and sexual ethics of our times,” she said.
“Nevertheless, I have observed that there are some groups or movements that would like to dissect Edith’s work to further a postmodern agenda or ideology, and I think that it is important to not take her work out of the historical and cultural context from which it came. It needs to be understood and embraced in the context of her life experience and death.”
She added: “Edith’s early life was fueled by an insatiable, intellectual quest for Truth. And when she found Him, life got quite a bit simpler, more loving and authentic after that. We might all do well to follow that path.”
Fr. Sullivan noted that the Discalced Carmelite order was “betting on the pertinence of her message and appeal.”
“Since spring 2022 an international commission is working on documentation for the order’s request of the Vatican to start a process to declare her a Doctor of the Church,” he explained. “If that were to occur, I feel she could usefully be called Doctor of Resilient Hope.”
Edith Stein - A brief timeline
Oct. 12, 1891 Edith Stein is born in Breslau, a city in Imperial Germany (now Wrocław, Poland), on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
1911 She begins her university studies in Breslau.
April 1913 Stein studies at the University of Göttingen with Edmund Husserl, principal founder of the philosophical school of phenomenology.
1915 She serves as a Red Cross volunteer.
1916-18 Stein works as an assistant to Husserl in Freiburg.
1919 Although she passes her doctoral examination with distinction, the University of Göttingen rejects her habilitation thesis, “Philosophy of Psychology and the Humanities,” because she is a woman.
Jan. 1, 1922 Stein is baptized, at the age of 30, on the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus.
1923 She begins teaching at a Dominican nuns’ school in Speyer.
1931 Stein completes a second habilitation thesis, “Potency and Act.”
1932 Stein becomes a lecturer at the Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Münster, but is forced to resign a year later after the Nazis pass antisemitic legislation.
April 12, 1933 She writes a letter to Pope Pius XI, urging him to issue a forceful public condemnation of Nazi antisemitism. She wrote later: “I know that my letter was delivered to the Holy Father unopened; some time thereafter I received his blessing for myself and for my relatives. Nothing else happened. Later on, I often wondered whether this letter might have come to his mind once in a while. For in the years that followed, that which I had predicted for the future of the Catholics in Germany came true step by step.”
Oct. 14, 1933 Stein enters the Carmelite convent in Cologne, where she writes the influential study “Finite and Eternal Being.”
April 15, 1934 At an investiture ceremony, she is clothed in the Carmelite habit and takes the name St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She wrote later: “I understood the cross as the destiny of God’s people, which was beginning to be apparent at the time (1933). I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on everybody’s behalf. Of course, I know better now what it means to be wedded to the Lord in the sign of the cross. However, one can never comprehend it, because it is a mystery.”
April 21, 1935 Stein takes her temporary vows.
Sept. 14, 1936 On the day that she renews her vows, her mother dies in Breslau. “My mother held on to her faith to the last moment,” she wrote. “But as her faith and her firm trust in her God ... were the last thing that was still alive in the throes of her death, I am confident that she will have met a very merciful judge and that she is now my most faithful helper, so that I can reach the goal as well.”
April 21, 1938 Stein makes her final profession. She chooses the words of St. John of the Cross for her devotional picture: “Henceforth my only vocation is to love.”
Dec. 31, 1938 She is spirited across the German border to a Carmelite convent in the Dutch city of Echt, where she works intensely on a study of St. John of Cross. She is joined later by her sister Rosa.
June 9, 1939 Stein writes in her will: “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.”
Aug. 2, 1942 Edith and Rosa are arrested by the Gestapo in the monastery chapel in Echt.
Aug. 4, 1942 They arrive at the Westerbork transit camp.
Aug. 7, 1942 Almost 1,000 Jews are deported from the transit center to Auschwitz, including the Stein sisters.
Aug. 9, 1942 Stein is killed with Zyklon B gas, alongside 522 other Jews, and her body is burned.
April 1, 1962 Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne opens Stein’s beatification cause.
Aug. 9, 1972 The diocesan phase of the beatification process ends and the documents are sent to Rome.
May 1, 1987 Pope John Paul II beatifies Stein in Cologne.
Oct. 11, 1998 John Paul II canonizes Stein in Rome.
Oct. 1, 1999 The Polish pope declares Stein a co-patroness of Europe, alongside St. Bridget of Sweden and St. Catherine of Siena.