Edith Stein

Within the shadow of Cologne Germany’s largest cathedral, there are waterfront cafes and beer gardens looking out upon a Rhine River bustling with barges and tour-boats. Cologne in summer is an endless series of festivals and it is easy to lose oneself in this fun-loving city known for perfume and chocolate. Through the cathedral’s gothic portals thousands of visitors come and go each hour, most of whom are quickly drawn away to the nearby neighborhoods with their colorful flags and the sounds of jazz and polka music.

Alice and I had been Cologne several times before learning of Edith Stein. This remarkable women intellectual was baptized in the cathedral here at the age of thirty, and later entered the convent in this city. The contrast between the surface excitement of Cologne, and the Stein’s depth of spirituality are striking.

Edith Stein was born in a Jewish family, the youngest of 11 children, in October 1891 in Breslau Germany. She was a precocious child. “I always foresaw a brilliant future for myself,” she later confessed. At 14, Stein gave up her Jewish faith, declaring herself an agnostic. A few years later she was one of the first women to be admitted to the University of Gottingen where she studied under the eminent German philosopher, Edmund Husserl and took part in the Prussian women’s voting rights movement. During World War I, she served as a nurse for two years in a military field hospital, and lost a close university friend, Adolf Reinac a fellow research assistant, killed on the western front. Visiting the young man’s widow in November 1917, Stein was struck by the strength of the woman’s Christian faith, later recalling this “first encounter with the cross and the divine power it imparts to those who bear it.”

Edith Stein during her university years. ,
Edith Stein during her university years.

In the wake of the First World War, Germany battled with economic depression and descended into the chaos of the Weimer Republic. Edith Stein found herself unable to obtain a teaching position in the German University system because she was a woman. Stein nonetheless continued her intellectual efforts, writing scholarly articles about the philosophical foundation of psychology. Still a non-believer, she read the New Testament, and St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. In the summer of 1921, she spent some time in the country home of a young Jewish couple that had converted to Catholicism. There she read the autobiography of the Spanish mystic, St. Teresa of Avila. Deeply impressed by the writings of St. Theresa, Stein decided to become a Catholic, and on New Year’s Day 1922 she was baptized in Cologne Cathedral.

Though desirous of emulating Teresa of Avila by entering the Carmelite convent, Stein was encouraged to continue her academic work and taught for the next nine years in a Dominican teacher’s college in the city of Speyer, east of Cologne. During this period she spoke frequently on issues of women’s rights as a leader in the Catholic Women’s Movement. She also translated Thomas Aquinas’s “Disputed Questions on Truth” and attempted to reconcile Husserl’s phenomenology with Catholic thought. In January 1933, Adolph Hitler came to power, and Stein unsuccessfully sought to speak with Pope Pius XI about Nazi anti-Semitism. Later that same year, she was accepted as a novice in the Carmelite Convent of Cologne, where she took her first vows in 1934.

Within the cloister Edith Stein continued her scholarly work and completed a major philosophical work “Finite and Eternal Being,” which because of government restrictions was not allowed to be published. In 1938, for her own safety, Stein, who was now required to wear the Star of David on her habit, was transferred to the Carmelite convent at Ekt in southern Holland for her own safety.

Her respite from the Nazi regime was short lived. In May 1940, Holland came under the German heel and in the next two years Stein was interviewed by police but allowed to remain in the convent. On August 2, 1942, most likely in response to a letter from the Dutch Bishop protesting German treatment of Jews, officers of the Gestapo came to the convent door while the sisters were at prayer. Within five minutes Stein and her sister, Rosa, who was also with her at that time, were taken away.

The last images of Edith Stein come from several individuals who encountered her at Westerbrok, a Dutch transfer center. An official described her as “a middle-aged woman who struck everyone as so young, who was so whole and honest and genuine.” Another inmate described her as looking out for children neglected by their distraught parents. “She washed them, combed their hair and tried to make sure they were fed and cared for.” Within days she, her sister, and many others were transported by train to Auschwitz, Poland. Here on August 9, 1942 Edith Stein was put to death in a gas chamber. Her body was most likely incinerated.

Surely at some time in her life, Edith Stein walked along the Cologne waters’ edge, listened to the music, and enjoyed the boats on the river. But, as much as she might have wished it otherwise, she saw life as more than perfume and chocolate. The testimony of Stein’s life, death and her words call us beyond the surface of things. “To suffer and to be happy although suffering,” she wrote, “to have one’s feet on the earth, to walk on the … rough paths of this earth and yet to be enthroned with Christ at the Father’s right hand, to laugh and cry with the children of this world and ceaselessly sing the praises of God with the choirs of angels–this is the life of the Christian until the morning of eternity breaks forth.”

Pope John Paul II beatified Edith Stein, who once described her life as “a single prayer longing for truth,” in Cologne Cathedral in 1987. She was canonized a saint of the Church on October 11, 1998.

March 28, 2007