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‘Individual, unrepeatable, and valuable’: How Edith Stein served people with disabilities

Eva Stein was a Jewish woman born in Germany in 1915. She was the second child of Martha and Arno Stein, who worked in the family lumber business.

Edith Stein, pictured as a student in 1913-1914. Public Domain.

At the age of one, Eva was diagnosed with an intellectual disability. Her parents decided to raise her in the same way as her other siblings, Wolfgang, Helmut, and Charlotte.

Eva struggled at school but was said to have excelled at baking challah, the braided bread made on Fridays in Jewish homes ahead of the Sabbath. 

In 1936, after the passage of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws, Eva’s mother, an American citizen, left for the U.S. — Eva was then 21.

At first, Arno remained with Eva, who was repeatedly denied permission to join her mother in the U.S., after she failed tests and was deemed “unemployable.”

In 1938, Arno too left for America, leaving Eva in the care of the owner of a boarding house, where she lived. Relatives, including her brother Wolfgang, kept an eye on her.

But at some point, Eva was taken away by the Nazis.

Eva Stein died between April and July 1942 in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, or perhaps at Auschwitz.

Eva’s aunt also died at the Nazis’ hands, probably on Aug. 9, 1942, at Auschwitz.

You’ve probably heard of Eva’s aunt — each year on Aug. 9, Catholics around the world celebrate her feast day. Eva’s aunt is better known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, or St. Edith Stein.

The relationship between Eva and Edith has captivated Cristina Gangemi, an expert in intellectual and cognitive disability, with a particular focus on spirituality.

Gangemi is the director of the Kairos Forum, an independent consultancy that “serves to enable the lives of people who have disabilities.” She is also an adviser to the bishops of England and Wales.

She spoke with The Pillar about Eva Stein, Edith Stein’s insights into the lives of people with disabilities, and why she thinks the saint may herself have been on the autistic spectrum. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


What do we know about Edith Stein’s niece?

Eva was the daughter of her brother Arno, and she was born with neurodiversity. I was struck by this story from Edith’s autobiography.  I had noticed that it was a story from her life that no one seemed to have commented upon. I think that this is because she has not often been linked to stories of disability and theology. 

I was struck by how she spoke about Eva; she did not refer to her as someone with a deficit. Edith noticed how she needed to be taught in a different way by using meaningful and symbolic methods.  

In Edith’s autobiography, she tells how she and her mother would teach Eva all that she needed to live well in the world. They were very creative in how they involved her cousins in her learning. It was a family activity and not an exclusive activity. 

Edith sees the essence of the person before any disability. She would also often visit a school for children who were blind and deaf, and was very interested in how they learned, using sign language herself when she became a nurse during the First World War. 

I can remember asking myself where she learned to sign, as I read of her interaction with soldiers of differing languages. It then struck me: From the school, possibly.

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To what extent do you think Stein’s relationship with her niece influenced her thinking about people with disabilities?

Edith has not written about this, or at least we do not have any further translations that tell of how the experience with Eva may have formed her. But how she treated Eva was honest and authentic to her own structure of the human person. 

However, I recently held a series of unique events that brought many experts in Edith Stein to England to share her work. During that time, one specialist in Steinian studies spoke of how, when Edith was a nun, she worked in a center for people who were ill and who experienced disability. 

Much of this experience has not yet been explored and maybe there is more to be discovered about this, as her copious writings are translated. This is a very exciting prospect. 

She also cared for her aunt following a stroke, and in all these experiences, she refers to the humanity of the person and to their unrepeatable essence. I believe that Edith was influenced by her encounter with every human being. 

She sees every person in their individual and unrepeatable essence. She values whatever is particular to their being in the world and notices how, universally, we are each joined to one another, by the Eucharist and through empathy. 

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How would you sum up Stein’s vision of people with disabilities?

I think just as I have mentioned: Individual, unrepeatable, and valuable. The dignity of every human person was paramount in her anthropology. This was set in her thinking when she started to study as a young woman. It stayed there in her years as an atheist, and I believe it was part of what drew her to Christianity and a life with God. 

Do you think that there are places in the Church where her vision is being realized?

I think it is being realized everywhere in the Church where human beings are shown value and know that they belong. 

All people should be enabled to share their experience of God, in their own unique way. I think that this is a gift that Edith’s life and work can teach. This is how she can reach across the bounds of time and accompany the Church with empathy. 

In Italy and Brazil, there are many people engaged in studying Edith and so the time has come to bring all of her wisdom to practice.

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You’ve suggested that Edith Stein may have had Asperger’s syndrome. What drew you to this conclusion?

This is a personal observation and more of an instinctive response to her story as I have received it. It would make a very interesting research project. 

The name “Asperger’s syndrome” has recently been called into question because of its link with the Holocaust [the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger had Nazi ties]. I tend, therefore, to suggest that she held many parallel experiences with people who told their stories of a life lived on the spectrum of autism. 

In recent years, a great deal of research has emerged from the stories that have been told from this lived experience. I have also recognized how many of Edith’s stories about her life and knowledge of God hold similarities to the stories that have so enriched my ministry and friendships. 

I think the stories that stick out for me are when she tells of not wanting to go to school as she could not walk on a wet floor and, as such, had to be carried by her brother. Also, when she was troubled by a sentence that her sister and mother shared, having trouble processing some of the words and over-focusing on others. So as to comply, fit in and not be anxious, Edith decided to follow everything that they said, obeying them so as to know how to behave. This, within a study of autism, can be known as “masking.” 

Her students loved her and many spoke of how she seemed distant, not always fully engaging in eye-to-eye contact with them. Even so, her understanding of empathy and of the interior spirit of a person suggests a capacity to see and feel the world, through and with a difference. 

She knew her students very well and was a superb teacher. She was adamant that no person should be identified by a characteristic or stereotype. This heightened sensitivity to an individual’s particular nature is what has attracted me to her in conversation with disability. However, this would certainly make a very interesting research project in the future.

I found many of Edith’s comments about her life, about how she processed information, which have led me to ask if she lived on a similar spectrum. As a young student, she accounts for a deep sense of her interior self. Her processing of information and copious ability to learn quickly suggests a neurodiversity that can be held in empathy, with people who also tell of a life lived on the spectrum of autism. 

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How did you discover Edith Stein?

It is a funny story but, I believe, a providential one. I was coming to the end of a research project which explored the spirituality and religious expressions of people who live with an experience of disability. It had been a rich and shared journey, where the research team experienced what we could only explain as moments of spiritual empathy. 

As the coordinator of the team, I asked a Carmelite friend of mine, the late Fr. Kevin Alban, if he knew to whom I might turn for writings on empathy. His answer was immediate: “You need to look at Edith Stein, a Carmelite saint, whose Ph.D. thesis is ‘On the Problem of Empathy.’”  I looked at him and recited a sentence that I have heard over and over again, especially in England: “Edith Stein? Who is that? I have never heard of her.”

He sent me immediately to the library at Aylesford Priory, the Carmelite shrine in Kent, telling me to ask for her book. As I entered the library, I saw a very old blue book sitting on the corner of the table, as if it was waiting to be collected. I asked the librarian if I could have Edith Stein’s work on empathy and she pointed to the book on the table. “There it is,” she commented. 

Surprised to see it sitting there, I asked if I could borrow the book, and she gave it to me, saying: “Oh, no one reads Edith Stein. You can have the book.” She really has not been well known in the United Kingdom. 

Surprised but somewhat animated by the find, I opened the book to page 17 and found an explanation of empathy that expressed, almost exactly, what we had experienced in the research. From that moment, I was hooked and, I believe, called to explore her work further in conversation with disability and theology. 

That was 13 years ago and I am still exploring her life and work, finding her a constant source of wisdom and value.  


You’ve described Edith Stein as being your “companion” for the past five years. Could you explain what you mean by that?

Following my experience of meeting Edith in the library — or at least that is how it felt — I have turned to her constantly for advice. I have discovered many new and creative ways to accompany students and people who experience disability. 

Having read her autobiography, “Life in a Jewish Family,” I felt even more that I had met her and it was personal. This is a shared phenomenon that many others who turn to her as a saint and who study her ‘“Werke” [“works”] comment upon. It is as if she befriends you and then, when you need her help or thinking, somehow it turns up, in one way or another. 

For me, this seems to have happened time and time again with books and articles that I have needed for my teaching and studies. She seems to be able to reach down through time, to help me, as a dyslexic theologian, to comprehend her sometimes complex ideas. What is insightful is that her help is always focused on the good of another human being and so assists my writing on experiences of disability. 

In her own thinking on knowledge and faith, Edith writes that philosophers must act as teachers who “reach out to one another over the bounds of time to pass on understanding and learning.” It is as if she has followed her own words, being a teacher and companion beyond any boundaries of time. 

The words and spirit of Edith Stein — that is, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross — inform and enrich my ministry, as well as that of many others.  

Where should someone who wants to find out more about Stein’s thinking begin?

You can really only begin to find out about her thinking by knowing her story. She is not an easy read as translations of her work into English are complex. 

I would always suggest, therefore, that a person begins with her story, written from her own voice as she lived her “Life in a Jewish Family.” Here, they encounter her as she lived and as she was called by God, to live as a Carmelite nun.  

Edith’s life was ended by discrimination and stereotyping, but her spirit lives on to draw all of us into dignity, acceptance, and value. She is truly a friend to get to know. 

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