Preface: Edith Stein's life is wonderfully captured in a book called, Edith Stein: A Biography by Waltraud Herbstrith (publisher: Ignatius Press). It is from this book and other sources that informed this post on St. Edith's heroic witness.
Bishop Fulton Sheen, in his series of talks entitled, What Now America? said that Americans should be thankful that they do not have to worry about that "knock on the door." That "knock on the door," of course, is a reference to the S.S. soldiers of Germany's Third Reich (1933-1945) searching for Jews who might have been hiding in people’s houses. This search was conducted for the purposes of detaining Jews and then deporting them to the nearest concentration camp.
On August 2, 1942 this ominous knock came to St. Edith Stein’s door. Actually, it was a door to a Carmelite convent in Holland. At the time, Edith was known as Sister Teresa Benedict of the Cross. It just so happen that she was a Jewish convert to Catholicism who had been baptized some twenty years prior on January 1, 1922. Eventually, Edith joined the Carmelite Convent of Cologne, Germany in 1934. But due to the heightened persecution of the Jews in 1938, Edith transferred to a Carmelite convent in Holland.
Unfortunately, her conversion and status as a Carmelite sister did not exempt her from the hatred and persecution unleashed by the Third Reich. On August 2, 1942 the prioress of the convent, Sister Antonia, unwittingly answered the door thinking that the S.S. soldiers had arrived to ask a question about immigration. As such, she sent for Sister Theresa Benedict of the Cross (i.e. Edith Stein) and her sister, Rosa Stein, both of whom had been praying in the chapel. Immediately, the Stein sisters were informed that they had five minutes to pack their belongings and then they were go with the S.S. soldiers. The thing is, everyone knew where they were going! With this, the convent was thrown into a state of utter shock and confusion. However, Edith Stein was calm and never lost her peace. She gently told Rosa, who was already racked with anxiety, "Come, we are going for our people.” And off to Auschwitz they went.
As indicated, the “people” Edith Stein referred to were the Jewish people. Although Edith was of Jewish decent in the flesh, she was not always a child of God in grace. In fact, at the age of 14, she lost her faith in God and was, for some years, an atheist. But in her early adulthood years, she gradually came to believe in a Supreme Being. As God’s existence was making a deeper impression upon her mind, her intellectual gifts were becoming more apparent in the academic world as a young adult. Indeed, she possessed great intellectual ability.
Edith was an intellectual by nature and an advocate for women’s issues both before and after her conversion. In 1911 she became a member of Prussian Society for Women’s Franchise. And in 1913 she transferred to Gottingen University. It was there that she became a pupil and teaching assistant to Edmund Husserl, a founder of a philosophical school of phenomenology. Husserl was born a Jew but converted to Lutheranism. After meeting another philosopher by the name of Max Scheler, it was then that she began to be intrigued with Roman Catholicism. However, what really made a deep impression on Edith Stein was a lady who had stopped by a cathedral in Frankfurt. She recounted the incident: "This was something totally new to me. In the synagogues and Protestant churches I had visited people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot. "
After having met converts from Judaism to Christianity, Edith found herself reading the New Testament and other Christian literature. One night in 1921 she picked up an autobiography of St. Theresa of Avila. She spent the whole night reading it. Later, she would say, "When I had finished the book, I said to myself: This is the truth." So drawn to the spirituality of St. Theresa she went further to study the Mass and various articles of the Catholic Faith. One day she decided to attend Mass. It happened that she was able to follow it without difficulty. After the dismissal, she approached the pastor and asked if she could enter into the Catholic Church. Then the pastor explained to her that there is a process and that it takes some time. In so many words Edith asked the priest to test her. That he did. To his pleasant surprise, she answered all of his questions. Having realized that she was gifted intellectually, the pastor put her under the care of another priest who could properly guide her both intellectually and spiritually. Instead of having to wait to until the Triduum to enter into the Church, she was baptized, as indicated, on New Year’s Day the following year.
To make a long story short, after becoming a disciple of Christ, the Catholic community in Germany put her talents to use. Edith taught at a Dominican sister’s school in Speyer. She was responsible for many philosophical writings and translation of St. Thomas Aquinas’ work at the Association of Catholic Women Teachers and the Association of Catholic University Graduates. From there, her reputation began to grow. As a result, she went on lecture tours speaking on issues such as “The Ethos of Woman’s Vocation,” “The Vocation of Man and Woman in the Order of Nature and Grace,” “The Life of the Christian Woman,” and the “Foundation of Women’s Education.” But because of her Jewish descent, she was unsuccessful in applying for teaching opportunities at the local universities. In fact, the prejudice against Jews became so intense that Edith had to discontinue her lectures.
Nevertheless, she accepted all of these setbacks as God’s will. She once said, “There is nothing to regret about the fact that I can’t continue to lecture. To me a great and merciful Providence seems to be standing behind it all.” Then she added, “I have not regretted it for an instant: I am convinced that everything is exactly as it should be.” Then it dawned on her: "I had heard of severe measures against Jews before. But now it dawned on me that God had laid his hand heavily on His people, and that the destiny of these people would also be mine.”
In 1933, Edith Stein decided to give her life totally to God. Having been attracted to the spirituality of St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, she entered the Carmelite convent in Cologne, Germany; taking the name of Sister Theresa Benedict of the Cross. And in 1938, she made her profession.
As stated, at the end of the same year, Edith and her sister Rosa transferred to a convent in Holland for safety reasons. This saintly woman then had an encounter with God very similar to that of Blessed Miguel Pro just ten to twelve years earlier when the Communists in Mexico persecuted the Church. If you recall, when Father Miguel Pro was celebrating Mass, he offered his life for his people. It was during that same Mass that God made it clear to him that his prayer was accepted. And it was during a holy hour at the Carmelite convent in Cologne that Edith made a similar offering:
“I spoke with the Savior to tell him that I realized it was his Cross that was now being laid upon the Jewish people, that the few who understood this had the responsibility of carrying it in the name of all, and that I myself was willing to do this, if he would only show me how. I left the service with the inner conviction that I had been heard, but uncertain as ever as what ‘carrying the Cross’ would mean for me.” This was a calling not only for her but for all of God’s friends who understood the Mystery of the Cross. She continues, “I understood the Cross as the destiny of God’s people, which was beginning to be apparent at the time (1933). I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on everybody’s behalf…Beneath the Cross I understood the destiny of God’s people.”
Edith's intuition could not have been more accurate. It happened that she applied for a Swiss visa. It was accepted but her sister Rosa’s visa was denied. Instead of taking the opportunity to save her own life by escaping the dangers of the persecution, she refused to abandon her sister. In Echt, Holland she remained. Finally, on August 2, 1940 her prayer was realized when the Carmelite convent got that “knock on the door.” “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.” (John 15:13)
Edith and Rosa were first transported to a transit camp in Amersfoort, Netherlands.
Many eye witnesses said that on August 3 the deportees were overwhelmed with extreme depression. They were also paralyzed with fear; and with good reason. However, there was one lady who stood out above the rest. Two eye witnesses said that Edith appeared “unworried” and even “cheerful.” Among several hundred Jews, there were some who were of a religious order. Led by Edith (or Sister Theresa), the religious prayed the Divine Office and recited the Rosary. Another witness said, “The influence she exerted by her tranquil bearing and manner was undeniable.”
Holocaust survivor, Julian Marcan of Cologne, said when the wives were separated from their husbands many of them were on the brink of insanity. They sat moaning for days leaving their children unattended. It was then that the complete calm and self-possession of Edith Stein became manifest. Wasting no time, she began taking care of the little ones. She fed them, clothed them and loved them. And then it was off to another transit camp in Westerbork (Netherlands) before they reached their final destination.
August 6, 1942 was the last of Edith Stein’s letters. Remarkably, in this letter to the Carmelite convent in Echt, Holland she used phrases like: “A thousand thanks.” “Greetings to all.” “Your Reverence’s grateful child. B.” Also, at the transit camp she happened to see men from Echt. They recounted how, given the hellhole that the prisoners were in, Edith was surprisingly in a relaxed and lighthearted mood. One of the men offered her a cigarette. She laughed and said that it was a habit she had once taken up in her university days. When talking to her, these same men said that there was a heavenly atmosphere about her…a glow of a saint. One official said that talking to her was taking a journey into another world.
These accounts about her supernatural-like demeanor do not tell the whole story, however. Edith was human. She did feel oppressed over the suffering of others; especially her sister Rosa. Some could see it on her face. She even said to one Dutch official, “I never knew people could actually be like this…But God is listening to their pleading I have no doubt of that.” Ruth Kantorowicz, a woman on the other side of the barbwire fence, was expressing her sympathy to the Stein sisters. Edith interrupted her and said, “I am prepared for whatever happens.” The Carmelite sister then shook Ruth’s hand firmly and wished God’s blessing for her and her family.
It was then on August 7 that the prisoners were awakened to hear their names read out loud. And as for those who heard their names, they were to be deported to their final destination; namely, Auschwitz, Poland. One can only imagine the insufferable conditions in the train. Edith even made mention that there were no toilets or anything of that nature for the crammed people to relieve themselves. The stench coming out of the train cars was reminiscent of hell. At one brief stop along the way, Edith asked a stationmaster to send greetings to a friend who happened to live nearby. She said to the stationmaster that they, the Jews, were headed East (i.e. Auschwitz). This was the last anyone had reported speaking to Edith Stein.
Finally, it was reported that two days later, on August 9, 1942 Edith Stein and her sister Rosa died in the gas chambers at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. In 1950 a Dutch gazette published the names of all of the Jews who were deported from Holland August 7, 1942. One excerpt of that report read:
Number 44074: Edith Theresia Hedwig Stein, Echt
Born- October 12, 1891, Breslau
Died- August 9, 1942
To the Catholic Church, Edith Stein was a Saint and a heroic witness in deeply troubled times. To the world, she was a victim of the holocaust. But to an ungodly totalitarian regime, she was only a number. Number: 44074.
Many ask: How is it that the death of a Saint glorifies God? Yet, despite the fact that this is a stumbling block to the world, Scripture bids us to believe in the Mystery of the Cross: “Precious in the sight of the Lord Is the death of his saints.” (Psalm 116:15) Christ confirmed this truth in the Gospel of John. Following His resurrection he said to Peter: “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. (John 21:18-19)
Now, if you really think about it, it is an odd thing that the kind of death St. Peter had to endure would “glorify God.” To most normal spectators, an elderly man being crucified upside- thus dying a slow agonizing death –would be a horrifying experience. It would shock our modern sensibilities, to be sure. Furthermore, it might even cause a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Yet, the early Church held the martyrdom of St. Peter the Apostle- as well as so many other martyrs –as a trophy to behold! Something to inspire and to be proud of!
So how could a human tragedy like this glorify God? When I started to read the biography of St. Edith Stein, the answer became a little bit clearer to me. I marveled at her God-given (and it was truly “God-given’) ability to rise above the tragic circumstances she was surrounded by. Embracing the Cross in her religious life, meditating on the Passion of Christ in her spiritual exercises and daily encountering her Savior at the altar aroused a the kind of love that prepared and enabled her to lay down her life for “her people” and for her sister Rosa when she was called upon to do so.
This extraordinary grace is given by God to his friends just when they need it. Fr. Walter Ciszek, for instance, during his imprisonment at a Siberian labor camp in the Soviet Union, was abruptly summoned before a firing squad. Just before the shots had been fired, a guard intervened and put a stop to it. The labor camp officials had mistakenly thought that Fr. Walter Ciszek was guilty of some misdeed. In any case, as the guns were pointed at Fr. Walter, he recounted how scared he was. His mind was disoriented and his knees were banging against one another. But he then added, God did grant me the grace of a peaceful resolve because it was not needed at the time.
But for St. Edith Stein, the extraordinary grace was needed. And it manifested itself through her to such an extent that it literally inspired others amid such human misery. We can even go so far as to say that, as one eye witness reported, her witness took souls to “another world.” This, in part, is how God is glorified through the death of His Saints!