By Lou Allocco
Throughout the rich history of the Catholic Church, the inspirational and heroic stories of the saints cover a wide spectrum of different backgrounds and circumstances. One poignant example of this is Edith Stein.
Edith Stein was born October 12, 1891, into a large, religious Jewish family in what is now Wroclaw, Poland. She was the youngest of 11 children, and because she was born on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Hebrew calendar, that may have attributed to her being a favorite of her mother. Her father died when she was only two years old, but her mother persisted in having her children receive good educations, and Edith was a very gifted learner.
Although Edith greatly admired her mother’s strong religious faith, she herself became an agnostic in her teenage years while developing a strong interest in philosophy. She studied at the Universities of Gottingen and Freiburg and received a doctorate with high honors, becoming only the second woman to receive a degree in philosophy from a German university. She fought for a position to teach at the university and eventually joined the faculty at Freiburg. In achieving this, she encountered and overcame the difficulties prevalent at that time facing women. Her fight for this teaching opportunity and for parity with men set the stage for other women to achieve careers in academia.
One day Edith and a friend were walking through the old section of Frankfurt. As they walked past a cathedral, they decided to go in to admire the architecture. Edith saw a woman kneeling and praying in the otherwise empty church. Although she had previously seen people praying in the synagogue during Jewish services, she had never before seen anything like this communication with a Presence which was personal and yet unseen. Later, while staying with friends outside Freiburg, Edith went into their library one night searching for a book to read. She came upon Saint Teresa of Avila’s autobiography and stayed up all night reading it. She put it down in the morning and stated, “That is the truth”. After a few weeks of further reading and praying, Edith approached the local priest and asked to be received into the Catholic Church. She was baptized on January 1, 1922. St. Teresa’s story also later prompted her to become a Discalced Carmelite nun.
Even though she became Catholic, Edith Stein never forgot her Jewish roots. Because of increasing antisemitic legislation passed by the Nazi government, in 1933 she wrote a passionate letter to Pope Pius XI pleading for the Pope to openly denounce the Nazi regime. In this letter, she asked the Pope “to put a stop to this abuse of Christ’s name”, adding “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?” Although it is not known whether the Pope actually saw her letter, he later issued an encyclical criticizing Nazism and condemning antisemitism.
Edith entered the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Cologne and took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Due to the growing Nazi threat, the Jews in Germany were in acute danger. Concerned for her safety, Edith’s superiors transferred her from the Carmel in Germany to the Carmel of Echt in Holland. Edith’s sister Rosa had also converted to Catholicism and was with Edith in Echt. But two years later the Nazis overran Holland, prompting the Dutch Bishops’ Conference to publicly condemn the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. The Germans retaliated by ordering the roundup of all Jews who had converted to Catholicism, and on Sunday, August 2, 1942, the Gestapo arrested Edith and her sister Rosa. The sisters were held briefly in a camp in Holland, where a Dutch official at that camp was so impressed with Edith’s sense of faith and calm that he offered her an escape plan. But she would not accept this opportunity for freedom because she didn’t want to abandon those others who were suffering in the death camps. Edith and Rosa were then sent to Auschwitz, where they were murdered in the gas chambers on August 9, 1942. Survivors of the death camp testified that she assisted other sufferers with great compassion.
On October 11, 1998, Pope John Paul II canonized Edith Stein, elevating her to the status of saint. She and St. Maximilian Kolbe are the only canonized saints murdered in Auschwitz, and she is the only one who wasn’t born Catholic.
What we see in a martyr like Edith Stein is not ordinary courage, but courage elevated and transfigured through love. She was willing to give even her life out of love for Jesus and His people.