A Carmel Among the Nazis

Stein’s family saw her entry into the convent as a betrayal, and as coming at the worst possible time, just when Jewish persecution was intensifying. Christianity was the religion of their oppressors; they couldn’t understand what it meant to her. When Stein’s mother heard of her decision to enter the convent, she was crushed. “Why did you have to get to know him [Jesus Christ]? He was a good man—I’m not saying anything against him. But why did he have to go and make himself God?” It was only after her mother’s death in 1936 that Stein’s sister Rosa felt free to be baptized as a Catholic as well. 

Stein remained in Cologne for five years, participating in the life of the community with great joy while continuing her scholarly work. After the terror of Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938), the nuns in Cologne feared for Stein’s safety and decided to send her secretly to the Carmel in Echt, the Netherlands. Her sister Rosa later joined her there as a Third Order Carmelite, serving as the convent portress. When Holland fell to the Nazis, Edith and Rosa Stein were in danger again, and plans were made to move them to Switzerland. Before these could be finalized, the Dutch bishops issued an encyclical attacking the anti-Semitic atrocities of the Nazi regime. The Gestapo retaliated immediately by rounding up all Roman Catholic Jews to be sent to the death camps. Edith and Rosa Stein were arrested on August 2, 1942. When Rosa seemed disoriented as they were led away from the convent, Edith gently encouraged her, “Come, Rosa. We go for our people.” The sisters were deported to Auschwitz and executed just a week later. Edith Stein was fifty years old. Reports from those who were close to Sister Teresa Benedicta in those final days show her to have been a woman of remarkable interior strength, giving courage to her fellow travelers and helping to feed and bathe the little ones when even their mothers had given up hope and were neglecting them. One woman who survived the war has written a description of Stein during the time their group was awaiting transportation to “the East.” “Maybe the best way I can explain it is that she carried so much pain that it hurt to see her smile. . . . In my opinion, she was thinking about the suffering that lay ahead. Not her own suffering—she was far too resigned for that—but the suffering that was in store for the others. Every time I think of her sitting in the barracks, the same picture comes to mind: a Pieta without the Christ.” Although she did not seek death, Stein had often expressed her willingness to offer herself along with the sacrifice of Christ for the sake of her people, the Jews, and also for the sake of their persecutors. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II on May 1, 1987. 

Writing About Women Most of Edith Stein’s writing on women and women’s vocation stems from the decade of her professional life between her conversion and her entrance into the Carmelite community at Cologne. The importance of these essays cannot be overestimated, both in terms of their originality and level of insight, but also in terms of their wider influence. On a recent visit to the U.S., Cardinal Lustiger of Paris, himself a Jewish convert to Catholicism, called Edith Stein one of the greatest philosophers of our time. “Her best pupil,” he said, “is the Holy Father.” Anyone who has read the pope’s encyclical on The Dignity and Vocation of Woman, or his more recent Letter to Women, will see immediately how much they owe to Edith Stein’s pioneering work on this subject.  

The motivation for these inquiries into the nature and vocation of women was, in Stein’s view, the need to educate women in a way that would be perfective of them, not just as generic human beings, but as women. Stein rejected the radical feminist claim that there are no important differences between men and women. As a philosopher looking for the basis of true femininity, she begins with what might be called an ontology of woman.  

After her conversion to Catholicism, Stein had turned to an intense study of the great Catholic philosopher and Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. She was fascinated by St. Thomas’s view of the human person. Unlike the radical dualism of Descartes, which represents soul and body as two different and distinct entities, Thomas insisted upon the subsistent unity of the person, body and soul, since each natural substance is a composite of form and matter. Further, since matter is what distinguishes one human being from another, the body is essential to the person, and not simply a machine or a shell for the soul that could be discarded without serious loss to the “real” self.