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Waltraud Herbstrith - EDITH STEIN: A BIOGRAPHY

1 rating: 5.0
Original philosopher. Jewish convert to Catholicism. Gassed at Auschwitz 1942. Most gifted student of founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl. Champion of women intellectuals. Canonized Catholic saint.
1 review about Waltraud Herbstrith - EDITH STEIN: A BIOGRAPHY

Edith Stein's "vocation, the merging of Judaism and Christianity into a single redemptive unity"

  • Feb 2, 2011


Who was Edith Stein? And why should you care?

She was born Jewish on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in 1891 in the city of Breslau in German Silesia (now Poland). Edith Stein was the youngest of eleven children raised in a devout Hebrew family. She lovingly told their story in a very long book, LIFE IN A JEWISH FAMILY 1891 - 1916. With her older sister Rosa, Edith Stein was gassed to death at Auschwitz in 1942 at age 50.

A brilliant youngster, Edith Stein from her early teens until well into her 20s ceased to pray, became atheistic. Nonetheless she accompanied her widowed mother on foot every Sabbath to their synagogue and never told her family of her spiritual distancing from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Edith studied for four semesters at the University of Breslau. Psychology was her major but the experimental field did not satisfy her longing for certainty and for a form of knowledge with believable criteria for its own truth. Having discovered at the University of Goettingen a new approach to philosophy called "phenomenology,' Edith Stein transferred there in 1913 to work for her doctorate under phenomenology's founder, Edmund Husserl, a Jew who had converted to Lutheranism. Stein wrote:

"I was twenty-one and all excited over everything that was going to happen to me. Dear old Goettingen! I think only people who were there between 1909 and 1914, in the brief flowering of the Goettingen school of phenomenology, can appreciate what that name contains for us" (Ch. 2). When the first world war broke out, Edith volunteered at a hospital to nurse Austrian soldiers recuperating from infectious diseases. 

In 1916 Husserl accepted a professorship at the University of Freiburg, bringing Edith Stein along with him as his graduate assistant. That same year Stein was awarded her doctorate for a dissertation, "ON THE PROBLEM OF EMPATHY," readily available today in book form in English.  She wrote in the next few years a number of original philosophical monologs applying Husserl's methods of analysis -- to politics and other subjects. In Freiburg, atheist Stein was led to study Christianity as well, inspired by a number of Christian friends,  phenomenologists and philosophers, some fallen in the war.

Advancement in her planned academic career (she wished to become a university Professor of Philosophy) was blocked because of her being a woman born a few decades too soon. Edith Stein returned to Breslau. In 1922, aged 29, after years of hesitating between Germany's two major Christian faiths, Stein was baptized a Roman Catholic. For the next eleven years she was an active Jewish Catholic lay woman and school teacher, in great demand as translator, lecturer and advocate of women's right to pursue fully professional careers. Much of this time she lived in a community of Dominican nuns.

In 1933, just after her 42nd birthday, Edith Stein became a postulant in the Carmelite Convent in Cologne. In 1938, after Kristallnacht and the intensifying Nazi persecution of Jews, her convent sent her to Carmelites in Echt, Netherlands -- an area not yet conquered by Germany. In July 1942, in retaliation for the Catholic bishops of the Netherlands having protested anti-Semitism from every pulpit in the Kingdom, the Gestapo arrested every baptized Jew they could lay their hands on, including Edith Stein and her sister Rosa. Together the two Steins died at Auschwitz not two weeks later. Ironically, the train carrying more than a thousand Christian Jews to Poland passed through their home of Breslau, where Edith Stein was recognized at the train station. Fortunately, some of their siblings had succeeded in time in migrating to the USA.

All this and much, much more is told in EDITH STEIN: A BIOGRAPHY by Waltraud Herbstrith. The book was published in German in 1971 and appeared in excellent English translation in 1985, reissued later.

What neither author nor translator could then know was that in 1998 Pope John Paul II (himself a former professor of philosphy and admirer of phenomenology) would declare Edith Stein a saint, under her name in religion of Sister Teresa Benedicta a Cruce. That name has been, erroneously I think, in one American documentary film mistranlated as "Teresa blessed by the Cross." Better is "Teresa Benedicta of the Cross." Teresa she chose in 1933 to honor Saint Teresa of Avila, who four centuries earlier had reformed the Carmelites, both women and men. Benedicta expressed Edith Stein's abiding love of Saint Benedict of Nursia, founder of Western monasticism. And the cross meant Jesus the Jew crucified for all men and women.

The biography by Waltraud Herbstrith makes it abundantly clear that Edith Stein was consciously and blessedly Jewish until the day she was executed. Even after her baptism she continued walking with her mother to the Breslau synagogue and worshpping there with her. In 1933 she wrote in vain to Pope Pius XI begging him to issue a papal encyclical letter condemning German anti-semitism. In philosophy, Stein was a synthesizer, laboring to bring together Husserl's phenomenology with the 13th Century metaphysics of Saint Thomas Aquinas. She was also a synthesizer, a unifier, in religion and theology:

"Anti-Semitic persecution was pushing Edith Stein closer to the realization of her unique vocation, the merging of Judaism and Christianity into a single redemptive unity" (Ch. 11).

Not long before her death she told her Jesuit confessor:

"You don't know what it means to me to be a daughter of the chosen people -- to belong to Christ, not only spiritually, but according to the flesh" (Ch. 11).

Edith Stein believed that as early as Hitler's political takeover of Germany in 1933, God was offering the cross to his Son's chosen people. But it would soon be the turn of Christians as well to take up their cross of Jeus and come follow him.

How could onetime baptized Christians like Hitler and Himmler do what they were doing to God's chosen people? It was a great mystery to Edith Stein. But to Edith, born on the Day of Atonement, it could not be the evil, personally guilty Nazis  who could possibly be chosen by God to atone for Nazi sins. That atonement could only be offered to God by the good, the righteous: the Jews, the Christians or anyone honestly seeking to live as God wants people to live. And atonment would be performed by being crucified with or at least in imitation of Christ.

EDITH STEIN: A BIOGRAPHY is a fine book. It is about a great feminist, educator, writer, philosopher, translator, mistress of the spiritual life and both a Jewish and a Christian martyr. In book clubs it will prove instructive and provoke powerful discussions.


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