Who was Edith?
A brief biography
Edith Stein was born to a Jewish family at Breslau on October 12, 1891. She was the youngest of 11 children. Her father died when she was two years old, and her hard-working and devout mother took over the care of her large family and timber business. However, Edith did not keep the strong faith of her mother, and eventually declared herself an athiest, saying: “deliberately and of my own free-will, I turned away from prayer”. She was a talented student, and after finishing school with top results, she chose to study philosoply in Gottingen where she encountered many new ways of thinking which challenged her religious experiences and decisions.
something I never forgot”. She found herself searching after the truth. One day she went to visit a young Protestant widow, uneasy about what to say to comfort her. However, she was surprised at the faith of the young woman and said: “this was the moment when my unbelief collapsed and Christ began to shine his light on me”. One night during the summer of 1921 she found herself spending several weeks at the home of a fellow philosopher and his wife. She happened to pick up the autobiography of St Teresa of Jesus (of Avila) and read it all through the night, saying to herself as she finished reading at dawn: “This is the truth”.
As the the anti-Semitism of the Nazis grew, in 1938 Edith was smuggled across the border into the Carmelite Convent of Echt in Holland. However, as the war escalated and Holland was occupied, the danger for Jews spread to that country. In August 1942, as retaliation against the protests of Dutch bishops to the treatment of Jews, many Jewish Christians were arrested, including Edith and her sister Rosa (who had also converted and was living at the Carmel in Echt). They were transported to the concentration camp at Auschwitz where Edith was gassed and cremated on 9th August 1942.
I saw a Saint
Eye-witness account of Edith’s Arrest by the Nazis in 1942
My name is Frits van der Asdonk (63), Montfort Father. I was born at Meyel, a little village in the south of the Netherlands. My father originated from Echt where his unmarried sisters and brother were still living at the time of this story. They had kind of adopted me and so I spent most of my holidays with them in Echt.
They owned a store in the Grote Straat right opposite the Carmel of Echt which played a great part in the lives of my aunties and uncle. As a little boy I knew much of the sisters and their conditions of life. Just before the great war a German Jewess had come to live at the Carmel of Echt; she came from Cologne and tried, together with her sister, to escape from Nazi Germany. You guess as much – her name was Sister Benedicta and her sister’s name was Rosa. As my uncle had one of the few automobiles in the village, he was often asked to take a sister to the regional hospital in Roermond to consult a specialist. On one such occasion he took Sister Benedicta with Rosa to the hospital and it was my privilege to sit in the front seat. No word was spoken and the sisters prayed in German, a language of which we both were pretty ignorant. It confirmed the rumour that the Sister was awfully holy and learned.
The Sacrifice of the Cross
Some quotes of Edith Stein:
My longing for truth
was a single prayer.
Every true prayer is a prayer of the Church; by means of that prayer the Church prays, since it is the Holy Spirit living in the Church, Who in every single soul ‘prays in us with unspeakable groanings’.
If anyone comes to me,
I want to lead them to Him.
|On being Jewish:
You don’t know what it means to me to be a daughter of the chosen people, to belong to Christ, not only spiritually, but according to the flesh.
One could say that in case of need, every normal and healthy woman is able to hold a position. And there is no profession which cannot be practiced by a woman.
Those who join the Carmelite Order are not lost to their near and dear ones, but have been won for them, because it is our vocation to intercede to God for everyone.
|Love and suffering:
Love is stronger than hatred. In the end there will be only the fullness of love… If we accept the whole Christ in faithful self-giving, by choosing and walking in the way of the imitation of Christ, then he will lead us through his Passion and Cross to the glory of the Resurrection.
Lay all your cares
about the future
trustingly in God’s
hands, and let yourself
be guided by the Lord
just like a little child…
A woman for our times
At the beginning of the 21st century, we see a world which is highly developed technologically, and yet still suffering from many human problems, wars, human-rights abuses and inequalities. What has the life and death of Edith Stein, a woman who lived during one of the most terrible periods of human history, to offer us? The writings of Edith Stein focus on three main subjects – the centrality of the person, the relation of the individual to society and the role and dignity of woman.
Centrality of the person:
During her early years of study, after the outbreak of the First World War, Edith witnessed the effects of human conflict, and felt called to respond in love to the injured, volunteering for the Red Cross nursing service. Her nursing work was selfless and compassionate, and at the end of her life we see she had not changed. A survivor of the Westerbork camp where Edith stayed some days before being transported to Auschwitz related how she went among the other prisoners comforting, helping and consoling them, and taking care of the little children whose mothers were unable to do so.
Relation of the individual to society:
Recognising that each individual and their relationships to others plays a part in the creation of a better world challenges our approach to solving the problems of society. Edith Stein teaches us that human relations are authentic if they are open to accepting the other person: a person who is recognized and loved because of the dignity which comes from being a person and not from other considerations, such as usefulness, strength, intelligence, beauty or health.
Many modern conflicts stem from religious differences. As a Christian who remained ever loyal and respectful of her Jewish roots, Edith shows us how to bridge the gap between different traditions, and so she has an important role to play in the work of ecumenism.
The role and dignity of woman:
Edith has much to say to modern Western woman, who has lost sight of her destiny, her ‘feminine genius’ as Pope John Paul II called it. As a brilliant feminist scholar Edith was able to challenge certain assumptions of the day, arguing for greater involvement of women in the liturgical life of the Church, in the professions, and in the workplace. She was an intellectual leader of the fledgling women’s movement in Germany after World War I. It is a remarkable tribute to her persona that she was able to harmonize these feminist aspirations with her abiding belief that at the deepest core of woman’s personality one will find receptivity and motherhood. She saw receptivity and motherliness as woman’s unique power, a power capable of transforming a home, workplace, professional environment, country, or society in ways that men cannot. The Edith Stein Foundation is an example of how the inspiration of Edith’s life has influenced women’s healthcare in the modern world.
In addition to these subjects, the life of Edith Stein can be an example to all those who are searching for the truth, especially young people. Many people in today’s world describe themselves as “athiest”, just like Edith once did. She can also be a friend to those who feel estranged from a family member because of religion or morals. As a highly educated and dedicated professor, she can be a role model for all those in the academic field. In conclusion, she is a great inspiration for all Carmelites about the meaning of our vocation, to unite with the salvific sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross for the sake of all humankind.
Poem written by Edith
“Today I stood with you beneath the cross
And felt more clearly than I ever did
That you became our Mother only there.
But those whom you have chosen for companions
To stand with you around the eternal throne,
They must stand with you beneath the Cross,
And with the lifeblood of their bitter pains,
Must purchase heavenly glory for those souls
Whom God’s own Son entrusted to their care.”
O my God, fill my soul with holy joy, courage and strength to serve you.
Enkindle your love in me and then walk with me along the next stretch
of road before me. I do not see very far ahead, but when I have arrived
where the horizon now closes down, a new prospect will open before me
and I shall meet with peace.