A recent article in the magazine First Things on Edith Stein, the Jewish scholar who became a Carmelite nun, was provocatively titled, “Apostate St.” Written by David Novak, a professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, it was a careful and generous explanation of why Jews cannot regard Edith Stein, a woman who “apostatized” from the faith of her people, with the same veneration as Catholics. Since her canonization on Oct. 11, 1998, Catholics recognize her as a saint under her religious name, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
“She might be the most uniquely problematic Jew for us since Saul of Tarsus,” wrote Novak, fully intending the high praise implied by linking Edith Stein with St. Paul.
Paul was not ashamed to call himself a Jew (see Acts 22:3), just as Edith Stein always considered herself a Jew, especially as she was going to die with her fellow Jews at Auschwitz. And while Paul fiercely insisted that Christians were not bound by circumcision and the prescriptions of the Mosaic law, he taught that the “Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God” — they are the people to whom God first revealed himself, and whom he has irrevocably chosen (see Romans 3:1-4).
Edith Stein understood herself, as a Carmelite nun, to be Jewish. That she was killed for being Catholic and Jewish by the Nazis unites in her person what has usually been divided in history: Catholicism and Judaism. Recently declared a co-patroness of Europe, along with St. Brigid of Sweden and St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross may provide a model for a European future in which historic Catholic-Jewish tensions are overcome.
Edith was born on Oct. 12, 1891, Yom Kippur, in what was then the German city of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland). She was the 11th child of devout Jews, Siegfried and Auguste Stein, of whom seven survived to be raised by their mother after the death of Siegfried.
“The greatest Jewish holy day is the Feast of Atonement: It was the day when the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies and offer the sacrifice of atonement for himself and the whole nation,” wrote Edith, recalling her Jewish upbringing. “The Day of Atonement had a special significance for me, because I was born on it. My mother had felt that this was very important, and I believe that, more than anything else, this helped make the youngest child very precious to her.”
The Atheist Scholar
Edith's life would be lived as a journey toward the atonement that Christians identify with the cross. But the path would not be a straight one. A gifted student, as an adolescent she was precociously concerned with philosophical questions, already aflame with a desire for truth. During her adolescence she rejected her Jewish faith, and stopped praying as a result of a conscious choice of atheism. In 1913 she went to Göttingen University, where the renowned philosopher Edmund Husserl supervised her studies.
Edith got her doctorate in 1917 summa cum laude, and had it not been for the fact that she was a woman and Jewish in a time sympathetic to neither, she would have embarked on a distinguished academic career.
In the summer of 1921, Edith, who was now pursuing her research independently, went to visit a friend, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, who was also a pupil of Husserl's. Hedwig and her husband had already converted to Protestantism. One night Edith, browsing through their library for something to read, picked up a copy of St. Teresa of Avila's autobiography. She read the whole book that night.
“When I finished the book, I said to myself: This is the truth,” Edith wrote about her conversion. A systematic scholar through and through, Edith immediately went out and bought a missal and a catechism, studying them thoroughly. When she attended Mass for the first time, she already knew the meaning of everything. She followed the priest back to the presbytery afterward and asked to be baptized. After asking her many questions, the priest was astounded at her knowledge.
Edith was baptized on Jan. 1, 1922, which was then the feast of the Circumcision of the Lord (eight days after the Nativity). She would enter the Church — the new covenant through baptism — on the feast of Jesus’ entry into the old covenant by the mark of circumcision.
Her conversion devastated her pious Jewish mother, who cried when Edith told her. Later, Auguste Stein would say with poignant simplicity about Jesus: “I won't say anything against him. He may have been a very good man. But why did he make himself God?”
“I had given up practicing my Jewish religion when I was a 14-year-old girl, and I did not begin to feel Jewish again until I returned to God,” said Edith, who felt from the beginning that the Catholic faith was a return to the faith of her people. For Edith, Christianity meant that she was not only spiritually united to the God “who made himself man,” but that she was physically related to Christ the Jew.
Edith had desired to enter the Carmel soon after her conversion — to take more completely as her model St. Teresa of Avila — but she postponed entry for nearly 12 years, in part to avoid causing further pain to her mother. During that period she lectured and continued her research, including doing fresh translations of Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman.
Ascent to Carmel
Edith entered the Carmel at Cologne, Germany, in October 1933. She later took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Already, the situation of Jews in Germany was precarious with Hitler's rise to power the year previous.
“I understood the cross as the destiny of God's people, which was beginning to be apparent at the time,” Teresa wrote about that period and her choice of name. “I felt that those who understood it as the Cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on every-body's behalf.”
Teresa's participation in the day of atonement would come. In the meantime, she devoted herself to the everyday domestic task in the Carmel until her superiors asked her to resume her scholarship. A student of the great 16th-century Carmelite St. John of the Cross, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross wrote a work entitled, fittingly enough, Science of the Cross.
“One can only gain a scientia crucis [knowledge of the cross] if one has thoroughly experienced the cross,” Teresa wrote. “I have been convinced of this from the first moment onwards and have said with all my heart: Ave, Crux, Spes unica! [Hail Cross, our only hope].”
Descent into Auschwitz
Teresa and her sister Rosa, who had also converted and joined the Carmel, were transferred from Cologne to Echt, Holland, to protect them from Nazi persecution. On July 26, 1942, the Dutch bishops issued a pastoral letter that condemned Nazi deportations of Dutch Jews to the death camps. The letter was read in all Catholic churches in Holland.
The Nazi retaliation was swift and harsh. All Jewish converts to Catholicism were arrested, and the Gestapo came to the Echt Carmel on Aug. 2.
Teresa and Rosa were taken and, after a brief imprisonment in various Dutch camps, were transported east by rail on Aug. 7. They arrived at Auschwitz on Aug. 9. Teresa and Rosa were selected for immediate execution and died in the gas chambers.
“Come,” Teresa said to Rosa when the Gestapo arrived. “Let us go for our people.”
When John Paul II beatified Teresa Benedicta of the Cross in Cologne on May 1, 1987, he called her a “daughter of Israel, who, as a Catholic during Nazi persecution, remained faithful to the crucified Lord Jesus Christ and, as a Jew, to her people in loving faithfulness.”