‘This Is the Truth’ — Edith Stein Saw Human Dignity in the Light of the Cross

Through Christ’s love on the cross, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross perceived the heights of human dignity and the depth of offenses against it, from Auschwitz to abortion.

Left: The so-called “passport” photo taken in the doorway of the Cologne Carmel around 1938. Center: Edith Stein as a student in Breslau around 1913. Right: Edith Stein holding her niece; date unknown.
Left: The so-called “passport” photo taken in the doorway of the Cologne Carmel around 1938. Center: Edith Stein as a student in Breslau around 1913. Right: Edith Stein holding her niece; date unknown. (photo: Cologne Carmel Archives / Monasterio Santa Teresa de Jesús / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In 1974, the Seattle Youth Symphony performed Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Dies Irae,” a highly dramatic oratorio in memory of the victims of Auschwitz.

Although I was a violinist in the orchestra at the time, violins were not included in the score, so I left the backstage area that night and listened to the performance as I stood just inside the door at the back of the concert hall. Choir voices began, mimicking plaintiff wailing of doomed victims, while instruments in the orchestra accompanied in prolonged somber tones that sometimes surged in war-like sound effects. Dissonant chords transitioned into longed-for consonance, expressing texts from both scriptural and secular sources.

But for me, one line particularly stood out that reminded me of the death camp’s youngest victims and of a tragic, present-day reality: “Bodies of children.”

A sad legacy, the memory was still fresh in my mind that four years previously my home state of Washington had become the first in the country to legalize abortion. I could not help but make the correlation at that moment between the innocent “bodies of children” exterminated in Auschwitz and those of the innocents now being murdered in abortion clinics.

“Please, God,” I prayed, “stop the horror.”

An answer to prayer in her time, among those who offered their lives to end the death camps, legalized abortion and other atrocities against the dignity of the human person during the early 20th century, God raised up the Carmelite and mystic, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, born as Edith Stein in Breslau, Germany. She was the youngest of 11 children in a Jewish family and one day would also be counted among the victims of Auschwitz. This year marks the 130th anniversary of her birth on Oct. 12, 1891.

From her earliest days, Edith had a clear sense of human dignity. In her autobiography, Life in a Jewish Family, although she admits to frequent displays of anger as a child, “Within me,” she wrote, “there was a hidden world.” The mere sight of a drunkard would haunt her for days and compelled her to pledge to abstain from alcohol for the rest of her life to avoid, as she put it, “being personally responsible for losing even the smallest particle of my human dignity.”

Intellectually gifted, she rebelled against the academia of kindergarten and resisted her amused brother’s grasp as he sang folk songs, carrying her to school each day, but at last surrendered her unruly behavior after observing the same in others and realizing the price of self-indulgence was the loss of one’s dignity. 

Her sense of dignity inspired dreams within her and convinced her she was destined for greatness. She poured herself into her schooling and finished each year at the head of her class. She delved into classic literature and poetry and attended concerts of music by great composers such as Bach, Wagner and Richard Strauss. In the summer of 1913, she began studying for state board examinations under the tutelage of the world’s leading phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl, and hoped to gain a professorship in philosophy. 

Then, suddenly, all sense of security vanished. “Our placid student life was blown to bits by the Serbian assassination of royalty,” Edith wrote, recalling the event that triggered the First World War. Setting aside her private for life a year, she volunteered as a Red Cross nurse to care for the sick and dying soldiers. But as the war ended and Edith resumed her studies, a new plan was already being plotted in secret by the burgeoning Nazi party to eliminate the births of those the party’s leader, Adolph Hitler, deemed “unfit,” particularly the Jews.

In his article, “As Many Abortions as Possible,” Mike W. Perry quoted the destructive ideology outlined by Hitler in his 1924 Mein Kampf: “No diseased or weak person should be allowed to have children.” Implementing his destructive intent under the ruse, “Protection of Motherhood,” in 1933, he enacted the Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases, which led to the sterilizations of some 350,000 women, the majority non-Aryans and Jews.

In 1935, unsatisfied with a remaining Jewish population, he transitioned to outright killing by legalizing abortion up to viability and mandated forced abortions upon Jewish women, who were often raided and attacked within their own homes as the dismembered bodies of their babies were trashed and carried away.

Edith grieved, learning of these cruelties, but although she had given up prayer at age 15, she now prayed, asking for an end to the evil, enlightened by the cross.

Her first encounter with the divine power of the cross occurred in 1917, when, upon witnessing the faith of a Christian widow in mourning, she said, “My unbelief collapsed, and Christ began to shine his light on me — Christ in the mystery of the cross.” Four years later, after spending all night reading the autobiography of the Carmelite reformer, St. Teresa of Ávila, she declared, “This is the truth,” and was baptized into the Catholic Church.

From then on, Christ’s love on the cross revealed to Edith her full dignity. Christ’s love on the cross strengthened her as she suffered the denial of a professorship and was forced from her teaching position on account of being a Jew. Christ’s love on the cross inspired her vocation to Carmel and the name she chose in religion, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Christ’s love on the cross inspired her literary works, written in Carmel, including her autobiography, Woman, and The Science of the Cross.

In 1942, Christ’s love on the cross impelled her to leave Cologne and transfer to the Carmel of Echt, Holland, to safeguard her sisters from the terrorism of the Nazis, now rounding up Jewish men, women and children in Germany and exterminating them in death camps. 

But even Echt was not safe. On Aug. 2, 1942, the Gestapo arrived and arrested Edith while she was praying with her sisters in the chapel. Transported to Auschwitz, there, amid the chaos and despair, Edith calmly reached out to the women and children around her.

According to one eyewitness account, she “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. She washed them, combed their hair, and tried to make sure they were fed and cared for.” It was on Aug. 9, then, that Edith was led away to offer her life to God within the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Her work, however, is not over. Now glorified, she is with us now, praying for an end to abortion and atrocities against the dignity of the human person. She is with us now, teaching us how to offer hope to grieving post-abortive mothers and fathers, and life-giving options to those tempted to abortion. She is with us now, encouraging us to persevere in faith. And she is with us now, in joy, reassuring us that the faces of once-despised “bodies of children” now and forever behold the face of our heavenly Father.