Jewish, nun, feminist: Edith Stein’s colorful life

In October this year, 130 years have passed since the birth of the German philosopher Edith Stein, whose life ended in Auschwitz, writes Deutsche Welle.

She was one of the most prominent figures in the philosophical and intellectual elite of 20th century Europe. A staunch atheist and gender activist, the Jew was baptized in the Catholic Church by the age of 30, became a nun about ten years later, and when Hitler came to power in Germany, she wrote to Pope Pius XI urging him to save the Jews from the Nazis. But she could not save herself.

Edith Stein was born on October 12, 1891 in Breslau, Silesia (now Wroclaw, Poland) and became the youngest, eleventh child of a religious Jewish family. Nevertheless, Edith, who was already a teenager, began to follow atheistic views. She was very curious from childhood, attended school beautifully and with pleasure, adored Schiller and Goethe, knew many poems and ballads by heart, and had a philosophical mindset, amazing willpower, and the ability to deal with emotions.

Edith received an excellent university education, studying philosophy, German and Germanic philology, psychology and history. The girl did not believe in the existence of God and believed that religion and science could not go hand in hand. Despite all her love for science, Edith was no stranger to entertainment. She loved company, dancing, dressing fashionably, and had a weakness for strong coffee and cigarettes – a typical feminist image of the time. In addition, she was a strong supporter of gender equality and believed that there was no profession that a woman could not pursue.

In 1913, Edith Stein traveled to Göttingen, inspired by the idea of ​​studying phenomenology with the eminent philosopher Edmund Husserl, explaining that the psychology she studied in Breslau, lacked a foundation based on clear basic concepts.

A year later, World War I broke out. In 1915, Stein gave up science and volunteered for a typhus hospital. The girl saw death and human suffering there every day, but she did not intend to resign. “We live in this world to serve humanity,” she said.

Returning from the front, Edith Stein moved to Freiburg, where Husserl was invited. There she brilliantly defended her doctoral dissertation on “The Problem of Empathy,” for which Husserl gave the highest grade and she aimed doctorate. However, because it was unthinkable for a woman to receive the title of professor in Germany in the 1920s, Husserl refused to support Edith in return for a job as a research assistant.

The period 1917–1921 brought Edith Stein into a crisis that changed her entire life…. She tried to become an associate professor at the university four times. However, despite brilliantly written research and Husserl’s excellent recommendations, she was not accepted as an associate professor – because she was a woman.

The crisis of life caused by her profession was exacerbated by her unhappy love for her philosophers’ friends: first with Roman Ingarden and then Hans Lipps. These men were interested in her as a friend, as an intelligent companion, but not as a woman. She was ignored – and it was very painful. Her mental suffering was exacerbated by the fact that she endured it secretly and without anyone’s help. “It was an experience that surpassed my strength, completely absorbed my spiritual life energy, and deprived me of all ability to work,” she later wrote.

A kind of “healing” came because she suddenly discovered God for herself. In 1921, while Edith was visiting her friends, she received an autobiography of Teresa Avila (1515-1582), a Spanish Carmelite nun, saint of the Catholic Church, author of mystical writings and Reformer of the Carmelite Order. It was after reading this book that there was a reassessment of values ​​in Edith’s mind, to which she did not give a clear explanation. Much later, having been ordained a nun, she wrote, “He who seeks the truth seeks God, whether he understands it or not.”

A philosopher with a critical mind, who doubted the existence of God for decades, decided to adopt the Catholic faith. In 1922, Edith Stein was baptized in the parish church of Bad Bergzabern and named Teresa. For the day of baptism, Edith consciously chose the feast of the circumcision of the Lord of the Jews: she symbolically wanted to associate her Jewish origins with a new religion.

The adoption of the Christian faith helped Edith Stein come to terms with both failures in office and unhappy love. In a letter to Roman Imgarden, she called her road to Christianity an “awakening” .

“Christianity freed me from the suffering that had limited me and at the same time gave me the strength to start life again and with gratitude,” she wrote to her former loved one.

From 1923 to 1931, the newbeliever worked as a teacher of German language and history at the Dominican School of St. Magdalene in Speyer, and in 1932 she was granted the right to teach freely in Münster, where she joined the German Higher Scientific and Pedagogical Institute. But a year later, she was fired as a “non-Aryan”: after the Nazis came to power in Germany, Jews were banned from all public office.

On April 12, 1933, Edith wrote a letter to Pope Pius XI, a Vatican nuncio in Germany and then secretary of state. She asked the pope to speak out against the Nazi “war on the blood of the Jews.” “Not only the Jews, but also the thousands of Catholics in Germany – I believe the whole world has been waiting for several weeks and hoping that the Church of Christ will confront this evil in the name of Christ,” Stein wrote to the pope. She mentions in her autobiography her astonishment that she received the news that the pope had received the letter, but the Vatican did not respond. Edith Stein’s letter was not published until 2003 in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. Vatican finally decided to open pre-war archives to scientists – in response to allegations that it did not respond to the Holocaust…

In the fall of 1933, Edith Stein fulfilled her long-standing dream of making a convent vow and becoming a Carmelite. Her choice fell on St. Joseph’s Monastery in Cologne. H

She was renamed to Teresa Benedict. A new phase in her life began. In the monastery, she continued to work on the main philosophical work of her life, the Theology of the Cross, which tells the story of the life and spirituality of St. John the Cross, a great Spanish mystic and companion of Avila Teresa. This was her last book.

In 1938, in connection with the intensified persecution of Jews in Germany, Edith Stein moved to the Dutch monastery in Echt, hoping to escape the persecution of the Nazis there. At the end of July 1942, a message from the Dutch Episcopal Conference condemning Nazi racism was read in all Dutch churches. In response, the Nazis began to avenge and arrest Jews belonging to the Catholic Church, mainly members of religious orders.

On August 2, 1942, the Gestapo succeeded Edith Stein and her sister Rosa, who also converted to Catholicism after her mother’s death. Together with other Catholic Jews, they were taken to the Westerbork transit camp. According to eyewitnesses, Sister Teresa Benedict was completely calm and did her best to help the people around her. On August 7, 1942, one of the camp workers, who deeply respected the nun, asked her if she could do anything else for her and save her, to which Edith Stein replied, “Do nothing. Why should I be an exception? Isn’t it fair that I can’t take advantage of my baptism? If I am not given the opportunity to share the fate of my brothers and sisters, my life will be destroyed. ”

A few days later, Edith Stein, along with other Christians of the Jewish descent, was sent to Auschwitz, where she died in a gas chamber.

In 1987 she was proclaimed blessed by the Catholic Church, and in 1998, Pope John Paul II proclaimed her a saint and co-patron of Europe.

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