Guest Post by William “Mac” McCarthy
My dormitory neighbor from 40+ years ago, who posted on the Martyrs of Compiègne in July, is back with some powerful material on St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, born to a Jewish family and still widely known by her given name of Edith Stein. I’ll pass along the material just as Mac sent it to me—only lacking his careful footnoting. There’s a lot here for reflection and inspiration:
“We are travelling East,” Last Letters from a Martyr
St. Edith Stein, 1891-1942, feast day August 9, also called Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, brilliant German philosopher, Catholic convert, Carmelite nun . . .The Nazis killed her at Auschwitz on August 9, 1942, for being a Jew. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1998 and named Patroness of Europe along with St. Catherine of Siena and St. Bridget of Sweden in 1999.
The walls of our monasteries enclose a narrow space. To erect the structure of holiness in it, one must dig deep and build high, must descend into the depths of the dark night of one’s own nothingness in order to be raised up high into the sunlight of divine love and compassion.
Not every century produces a work of reform as powerful as that of our Holy Mother (Saint Teresa of Avila, 16th century). Nor does every age give us a reign of terror during which we have the opportunity to lay our heads on the executioner’s block for our faith and for the ideal of our Order as did the sixteen Carmelites of Compiègne [martyred at the Paris guillotine, July 17, 1794]. But all who enter Carmel must give themselves wholly to the Lord. Only one who values her little place in the choir before the tabernacle more highly than all the splendor of the world can live here, can then truly find a joy that no worldly splendor has to offer.”—Edith Stein, Laetare Sunday, March 31, 1935
Seven years after she wrote those words, Edith Stein had to “leave her little place in the choir before the tabernacle” to ride away with two S.S. officers. A week later, she was put into a gas chamber at Auschwitz.
Edith Stein was the youngest of eleven children in a devout Jewish family. She was born on October 12, 1891, in Breslau, Germany (Prussia), now Wroclaw, Poland. Her father was a lumber merchant who died before her second birthday. Her mother, Auguste Stein, a strong woman, took over the business and it prospered. Throughout her life, Edith remained a devoted daughter, beloved sister and favorite aunt.
Highly intelligent, Stein earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy, summa cum laude, at the University of Freiburg in 1916 under Edmund Husserl. Husserl was the founder of phenomenology, an analytical approach to human consciousness. Husserl considered Stein his best doctoral student, and she was his personal assistant for a time. Her own original research and writing in the field was cited by well known scholars, such as Max Scheler. Largely because she was a woman, Stein was unable to obtain a position as a university professor. Nevertheless, she remained an active and influential philosopher all her life. Her later scholarly writing focused on knowledge and faith.
In 1921, during a summer stay at the home of some philosopher friends, Stein picked up and read the Autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582, Spanish mystic, founder of the Order of Carmelites Discalced, and Doctor of the Church). Stein was profoundly moved by St. Teresa’s message that the search for God is no mere intellectual exercise but rather a relationship of love and complete surrender. After studying Catholic teachings in the catechism and the missal, she was baptized on January 1, 1922.
From 1923 until 1931, Stein taught and lived at the secondary school and Catholic teachers’ college of the Dominican Sisters in Speyer, Germany. Then she taught at the Pedagogical Institute in Munster until 1933. In those years she translated works by John Henry Cardinal Newman and Saint Thomas Aquinas into German. It was said she could read and understand Latin just as quickly as she could German.
She also spoke to women’s groups all over Germany about the role of women in modern society. Stein was convinced that the challenges women faced in the professional world were best addressed by spiritual and intellectual reflection. Her message was grounded in the power of faith. She was an unpretentious, but captivating speaker.
Like the saint who had inspired her conversion, Teresa of Avila, Edith Stein had a natural, warmhearted amiability. The abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Beuron, who was her spiritual director in the years before she entered Carmel, described her as follows:
“I have seldom met a person in whom so many and so laudable characteristics were united. At the same time, she remained entirely a woman with tender and almost motherly sensitivities. Mystically gifted, she was unpretentious with simple people, scholarly with scholars, a seeker with seekers, l would almost say a sinner with sinners.”
In 1933, Stein lost her teaching position in Munster. Hitler and the National Socialist Party had forbidden Jews to teach. On October 14, 1933, she entered the Carmel in Cologne. She had long desired to enter the Carmelite Oder, but previously put off such a step, largely out of consideration for her elderly orthodox Jewish mother, who would be crushed by a separation from her daughter. Now, her options were Carmel or emigration. That year, she wrote, “There’s 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.” Dr. Edith Stein became Sister Teresa Benedicta a Cruce—Teresa Blessed by the Cross.
After the Kristallnacht of November 9-10, 1938, there was no avoiding the danger from the Nazis. Edith Stein worried that she was endangering the lives of her fellow sisters in Cologne. She was granted permission to transfer to the Carmel in the village of Echt in the Netherlands and arrived there on December 31, 1938. Her older sister, Rosa, who had converted to Catholicism in 1936, joined her there in July of 1939. Rosa lived in a guest room. She served as the portress for the convent and then as an extern sister who had contact with the outside world.
“Rosa, come, we are going for our people.”—Edith Stein to her sister, at the front gate of Carmel Echt, shortly after 5:00 in the afternoon, Sunday, August 2, 1942
In the early 1940’s, Father Jan Nota was a young Dutch Jesuit scholar assigned by his superiors to help Edith Stein ready her book, Finite and Eternal Being, for publication. It had been previously set for publication in Germany in 1936, but anti-Jewish laws had prevented that. His last visit with her provides a happy glimpse of Edith Stein only twenty-four days before her death:
I saw Edith Stein for the last time on July 16, 1942. That is the day the Carmelite Order celebrates as its patronal feast, “Our Lady of Mount Carmel,” in commemoration of the first Carmelite friars who, back in the thirteenth century, established their life of prayer in the mountains near Haifa. When I arrived at the convent (Carmel Echt), Edith Stein asked me to deliver a homily at the Holy Hour. I felt a little nervous, having never preached in public since my ordination, but Edith Stein directed me to some beautiful Scripture texts found in the Carmelite Office and helped me to put the sermon together. In fact, she almost wrote it herself. Yet she did it all in a friendly, unassuming way, happy to have me take her suggestions. It occurred to me that Edith Stein’s intellectual talents had in no way impaired the feminine side of her personality. She was anxious that I take back enough food for the return journey. She loved to show me pictures of her family, and of Husserl and Scheler too.—Father Jan Nota, S J.
The Nazis came for Edith and Rosa Stein at five in the afternoon. The sisters were gathered in the chapel for meditation. It was Edith’s turn read at the beginning of the meditation, and she had to stop when the prioress sent for her. Two S.S. officers stood at the Carmel grille and told her she had five minutes to pack her things. After hasty farewells and requests for prayers, Stein went out and joined Rosa, who was waiting at the convent gate. The street had begun to fill with local residents who were incensed by the round up. Rosa was upset, and Edith took her by the hand saying, “Rosa, come, we are going for our people.” She meant the Jewish people. They walked hand in hand to the corner where a van waited. It all took just a few minutes.
What follow are Edith Stein’s last letters, written July 24 thru August 6. The first two, written before the S.S. came for her on August 2, discuss her efforts to emigrate with Rosa to Switzerland. The last letters were written from a Nazi detention center in the Netherlands.
Letter (in French) to the Prioress of Carmel Le Paquier, Switzerland
Echt, July 24, 1942
My dear Reverend Mother,
Today we received your good letter. I thank you with all my heart for being willing to accept me as a member of your dear family—yours and that of all my dear sisters. I am unable to tell you how touched I am by your goodness and even more that of the Good God. You will understand it even better after you have heard the history of our lives and that of our family. We will now see if it is possible to get permission to leave the Netherlands. But it will probably take much time—months I suppose. I shall have to be content with such a promise.
Our dear Reverend Mother and my sister Rosa will add a few lines. Again, a thousand thanks, my dear Reverend Mother, and the expression of my respectful love in Jesus Christ.
Your very little and humble, unworthy,
Sr.Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, OCD
Letter to Auguste Perignon, a former teaching colleague in Speyer, Germany
Echt, July 29, 1942
Sincere thanks for your kind note. R.I.P. for your dear brother. You will be grateful that he has found release. Since you are informed about us, I need only tell you the latest: Switzerland wishes to open its doors to my sister Rosa and myself, since the only cloistered monastery in our Order in that country—Le Paquier in the Canton Fribourg–will receive me, and a Convent of the Third Order Carmelites an hour away (from the Carmel), my sister. The two houses have certified, to the aliens’ office of the police, that they will provide for us for our lifetimes. The big question remains: will we be given permission here (by the Nazi occupation forces) to leave (the country). In any case, it will probably take a long time. I would not be sad if it did not come. After all, it is no slight matter to leave a beloved monastic family the second time. But I will accept whatever God arranges. Will you please tell them in Speyer and Kordel about this and ask for prayers?
To you and all who continue to think of me, cordial greetings. In Corde Jesu, your
Teresa Benedicta a Cruce
Letter to her Prioress at Camel Echt
Drente-Westerbork, Barracks 36, August 4, 1942
Dear Mother and Sisters,
During the past night we left the transit-station A. (Amersfoort) and landed here early this morning. We were given a very friendly reception here. They intend to do everything possible to enable us to be freed or at least that we may remain here.* (*In the margin at this point in the letter is written, “Aug. 5: Is no longer possible.”)
All the Catholics are together and in our dormitory we have all the nuns (two Trappistines, one Dominican), Ruth (Kantorowicz), Alice (Reis), Dr. (Lisamaria) Meirowsky, and others are here. Two Trappist fathers from T. (Tilburg, Holland)) are also with us. In any case, it will be necessary for you to send us our personal credentials, our ID cards, and our ration cards. So far we have lived entirely on the generosity of others. We hope you have found the address of the Consul and have been in touch with him. We have asked many people to relay news to you. The two dear children from Koningsbosch (Annemarie and Elfriede Goldschmidt) are with us. We are very calm and cheerful. Of course, so far there has been no Mass and Communion; maybe that will come later. Now we have a chance to experience a little how to live purely from within. Sincerest greetings to all. We will probably write again soon.
In Corde Jesu, your B.
When you write, please do not mention that you got this.
(Enclosed in this letter were a note to the Carmel from her sister Rosa and a message to the Swiss Consulate in Amsterdam that said, “Enable us as soon as possible to cross the border. Our monastery will take care of travel expenses.”
Letter to her Prioress at Carmel Echt
Drente-Westerbork, Barracks 36, August 5 (1942)
My dear Ones,
A R.C. nurse from A. (a Red Cross Nurse from Amsterdam) intends to speak today with the Consul. Here, every petition (on behalf) of fully Jewish Catholics has been forbidden since yesterday. Outside (the camp) an attempt can still be made, but with extremely little prospect. According to plans, a transport will leave on Friday (August 7). Could you possibly write to Mere Claire in Venlo, Kaldenkerkeweg 185 (the Ursuline Convent) to ask for our (my) manuscript (of The Science of the Cross) if they have not already sent it. We count on your prayers. There are so many persons who need some consolation and they expect it from the Sisters.
In Corde Jesu, your grateful
Letter to her Prioress at Carmel Echt
Drente-Westerbork, Barracks 36, August 6, 1942
A Mother Superior from one of the convents arrived last evening with suitcases for her child and now offers to take some short letters along. Early tomorrow a transport leaves (Silesia or Czechoslovakia??).
What is most necessary: woolen stockings, two blankets. For Rosa all the warm underwear and whatever was in the laundry; for us both towels and wash cloths. Rosa also has no toothbrush, no Cross and no rosary. I would like the next volume of the breviary (so far I have been able to pray gloriously). Our identity cards, registration cards (as Jews), and ration cards.
A thousand thanks, greetings to all, Y.R.’s grateful child,
(P.S.) 1 habit and aprons, 1 small veil.
The letter of August 6, 1942, was the final letter. Early on Friday, August 7, at the railway station in Schifferstadt, Germany, a woman in dark clothing inside a sealed transport hailed the stationmaster who was standing on the platform. She identified herself as Edith Stein and asked him to pass her greetings and a message to friends who lived there. The message was, “We are travelling east.”
The transport carrying Edith and Rosa Stein arrived at Auschwitz on Sunday, August 9. All the women and children as well as most of the men were immediately gassed. They were buried in a mass grave.
None of the Jewish Catholics mentioned in Stein’s letter of August 4 survived Auschwitz. Alice Reis was a nurse. She had converted to Catholicism in 1930. At her baptism in Beuron, Germany, the godmother standing next to her was Edith Stein. Stein first met Ruth Kantorowicz in Hamburg when Ruth was three years old. In 1934, they became friends when Ruth joined the Catholic Church. Kantorowicz was also a Ph.D. From 1935 on, she often typed Stein’s manuscripts. When the Nazi’s came for her on August 2, she was living at the Ursuline Convent in Venlo and had been typing Stein’s manuscript for The Science of the Coss. That is why Stein’s letter of August 5 discusses a manuscript being sent to her from that convent.
All the accounts of survivors from the detention camp in the Netherlands that mention Edith Stein agree on her remarkable calm and leadership in the camp. One survivor’s account was as follows:
It was Edith Stein’s complete calm and self-possession that marked her out from the rest of the prisoners. There was a spirit of indescribable misery in the camp; the new prisoners, especially, suffered from extreme anxiety. Edith Stein went among the women like an angel, comforting, helping, and consoling them. Many of the mothers were on the brink of insanity and had sat moaning for days, without giving any thought to their children. Edith Stein immediately set about taking care of these little ones. She washed them, combed their hair, and tried to make sure they were fed and cared for.