St. Edith Stein
Edith Stein was born in 1891, in Breslau, Germany. She was born on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. When Edith was only two years old, her father died suddenly and her mother was left to raise eight children. Through all of the difficulties her mother faced, she remained a devout Jew. Although Edith admired her mother's convictions, she did not share them. By the time she was thirteen, she had become an atheist because she felt that there were too few authentic believers.
In college, however, Edith's atheism began to collapse. She was a brilliant student, one of the first women to be admitted to study at the University of Göttingen. There she studied under Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. By the age of twenty-three she had completed her dissertation on empathy.
St. Edith said of the Holocaust, “I realized that it was his Cross that was now being laid upon the Jewish people, that the few who understood this had the responsibility for carrying it in the name of all, and that I myself would do this, if only he would show me how.”
The study of philosophy and the conversion of many of her friends to Christianity caused her to begin to seriously consider its claims. She began to read the Bible and other spiritual writings. At twenty-nine, she picked up a copy of the autobiography of St. Teresa of Ávila. She read through the night and by the morning, she said, “This is the truth.” She rushed out to purchase a Catholic missal and catechism.
She was baptized the following January. Although she wanted to enter the Carmelite order immediately, her advisors asked her to wait because her conversion had already devastated her mother. Edith continued to accompany her mother to synagogue, feeling more deeply connected with her Jewish heritage than she had before.
Edith taught for a short time in Münster, but as the Nazi movement gained momentum, she lost her teaching position. She also foresaw the horrors ahead and attempted to gain an audience with Pope Pius XI — to request that he issue a papal encyclical against the Nazis — but her request went unanswered.
A prayer said to St. Edith Stein: “Saint Edith Stein, holy martyr, philosopher of the truth, defender of the human person against the evils of this age, enlighten our minds, illumine our hearts, fill our lives with the passion of your love for the Cross. Amen.”
Sr. Edith entered the Carmelite convent in Cologne. She took the name “Sister Teresa Benedicta a Cruce” (meaning Blessed by the Cross). Her mother, who was not present at the ceremony, accused Edith of abandoning her people during their time of persecution.
A Death of Solidarity
As the war on the Jews was declared on November 8, 1938, Edith feared that her presence at the nunnery endangered her sister nuns. She was smuggled into Holland. Although she did not fear death — and in fact wanted to offer her life as a sacrifice for her own people — she did not wish for anyone else to be unnecessarily harmed.
In 1940 the Nazis occupied Holland and Edith and her sister Rosa (who had also converted) were forced to wear the yellow star. On July 26, 1942, the Catholic bishops of Holland issued a statement denouncing the persecution of the Jews. This provoked a harsh retaliation from the Nazis, who immediately rounded up all Catholic Jews. On August 2 the Gestapo arrived at the convent. Edith reassured her sister, saying, “Come Rosa, we're going for our people.”
A fellow prisoner said of St. Edith that it was almost painful to see her: “She carried so much pain that it hurt to see her smile … Every time I think of her sitting in the barracks, the same picture comes to mind: a Pieta without the Christ.”
Edith died in the gas chamber at Auschwitz on August 9, 1942. Forty-three years later, on this same day, a little girl was born in America and named after St. Edith. Teresa Benedicta nearly died when she was two years old from an accidental Tylenol overdose. Her family and friends asked for the intercessions of St. Edith, and the little girl miraculously survived, to the astonishment of her doctors. St. Edith was canonized on October 11, 1998, by Pope John Paul II.