When I first started researching Edith Stein, I wasn’t sure if I’d like her or feel close to her. I kept hearing that dreaded word “conversion” come up and it really turned me off. A German Jewish Catholic Carmelite nun? How is that even possible? And she was set out to “convert” as many Jewish people to Christianity as possible? That can’t be right? Fortunately, I kept researching, reading, and listening to her speak to me, determined to get down to the truth of the matter. Her hagiographies were plain wrong in so many ways (in my opinion), and I don’t say that lightly. She wasn’t simply a Jewish woman who converted and became a Catholic Carmelite nun; she was German, AND Jewish, AND atheist, AND a scholar, AND a professor (she taught Latin and philosophy), AND she held a doctoral degree in philosophy (she focused her thesis on empathy, earned summa cum laude honors, and was categorized as a realistic phenomenologist), AND a red Cross nurse during WWI, AND an author (who also translated Thomas Aquinas’ De Veritate into German), and after her conversion said she wanted to be a voice for the children of Israel WITHIN the Church by exclaiming “I will be like Jesus, who never stopped being a Jew.” Now I know who’s been whispering in my ear this whole time that “Jesus wasn’t Christian, he was Jewish.” Additionally, she continued celebrating Jewish culture and important holidays with her very observant family. Well now, that paints a very different picture than a mission of “conversion” doesn’t it?
Edith is considered a highly controversial saint because of her Jewish heritage, practice, and culture, and then subsequent conversion to a Catholic Carmelite nun that the church claimed as their martyr and canonized as one of six co-patron Saints of Europe. From what I studied, the Jewish people (and rightfully so) feel as though the Catholic Church stole her history and heritage and made her a Catholic saint at the same time that the church is known to have been largely silent during the early abuse of the Nazi regime and resulting Holocaust. While this take could be considered generational according to modern Jewish people, I think it is still important to recognize. Edith even wrote a letter to Pope Pius XI criticizing the Nazis, imploring him to “put a stop to this abuse of Christ’s name!” by asking the Pope to openly denounce the Nazis. The Pope never responded to her letter that read:
“As a child of the Jewish people who, by the grace of God, for the past eleven years has also been a child of the Catholic Church, I dare to speak to the Father of Christianity about that which oppresses millions of Germans. For weeks we have seen deeds perpetrated in Germany which mock any sense of justice and humanity, not to mention love of neighbor. For years the leaders of National Socialism have been preaching hatred of the Jews. … But the responsibility must fall, after all, on those who brought them to this point and it also falls on those who keep silent in the face of such happenings. Everything that happened and continues to happen on a daily basis originates with a government that calls itself 'Christian'. For weeks not only Jews but also thousands of faithful Catholics in Germany, and, I believe, all over the world, have been waiting and hoping for the Church of Christ to raise its voice to put a stop to this abuse of Christ's name. Is not this idolization of race and governmental power which is being pounded into the public consciousness by the radio open heresy? Isn't the effort to destroy Jewish blood an abuse of the holiest humanity of our Savior, of the most blessed Virgin and the apostles? Is not all this diametrically opposed to the conduct of our Lord and Savior, who, even on the cross, still prayed for his persecutors? And isn't this a black mark on the record of this Holy Year which was intended to be a year of peace and reconciliation? We all, who are faithful children of the Church and who see the conditions in Germany with open eyes, fear the worst for the prestige of the Church, if the silence continues any longer.”
Edith was born on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the holiest day of the Hebrew calendar, as the youngest of 11 children. Early on, her mother identified her as an incredibly gifted child, encouraging critical thinking and intense study as she grew. Her father died when she was young, which left her mother as the sole source of influence and stability. Edith enjoyed learning and admired her family’s strong Jewish faith until she started studying religious history in her teenage years and considered herself an atheist for quite some time. I actually admire that about her evolution story. As a young woman, she began to combine her intellect with intuition and realized she had a different calling. She taught at the University of Freiburg after completing her doctoral thesis, but was forced to quit her teaching position in 1933 as the Nazi regime required of all civil servants who weren’t Aryan. After her exit from the University, a friend handed her an autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila. Her call emerged loud and clear and she began the process of shifting to the Christian faith. Saint Teresa was a Spanish Carmelite nun, which peaked Edith’s desire further and she pressed to learn more about convent life and answering her call to God as a fellow Carmelite nun; all of which was too much for her observant Jewish mother to bare.
Edith moved to the Carmelite monastery in Cologne where she became a postulant, donning a religious habit and religious name. She became a lecturer and teacher within the Catholic institution, teaching Latin and philosophy. Her sister Rosa also converted to Christianity and came to the monastery to live with her. In 1938, Edith and her sister were both sent to the monastery in Echt, Netherlands for safety from the Nazis because of their Jewish heritage. Prior to the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Edith knew she would not survive the war. She created a will and offered herself as a “sacrifice of atonement for true peace” to the heart of Jesus. Considering she was born on the “day of atonement,” this was quite a way to sacrifice herself. She quietly trained for life in a concentration camp by enduring extreme cold and complete hunger. It is even said that a Dutch official offered Edith an escape plan after witnessing her sense of faith and calm and she vehemently refused saying; “If somebody intervened at this point and took away the chance to share the fate of my brothers and sisters, that would be utter annihilation.” All baptized Catholics of Jewish origin in the Netherlands were arrested by the Gestapo on August 2, 1942 (244 people in total according to historic records) and sent to Auschwitz concentration camp where they were murdered via gas chamber days later.
Edith Stein, also known by the church as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, was born October 12, 1891 in Poland and died on or around August 9, 1942 in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 11, 1998 in Rome, Italy. When I first shared about Edith’s icon, a friend reached out to me and said she was actually in attendance of her canonization and sent pictures (see below - thanks Lori!).
“I will intercede on behalf of the children of Israel. I am not abandoning my faith, I am just maturing my love for God.” Edith made up for what the Catholic Church lacked by being present with her Jewish brothers and sisters in the midst of war. She stood by them and with them, ultimately dying with them too. While the church stayed as silent as the male apostles when Jesus was crucified, Edith was at ground zero like Mary Magdalene, refusing to leave and becoming an ultimate witness. She is buried on the grounds of Auschwitz concentration camp in an unmarked mass grave with her fellow children of Israel.