The train pulled into the station on August 6, 1942. Among the thousand or so passengers who disembarked after a long uncomfortable trip from Holland was a woman clad in the habit of a Discalced Carmelite nun.
The station was Auschwitz.
The Carmelite’s name was Sr. Teresia Benedicta a Cruce, born Edith Stein on Oct 12, 1891 in Breslau, Poland. She was the youngest of 11 children welcomed into a devoutly observant Jewish household. Her academic brilliance was obvious at an early age. She wrote that at 14 she, “consciously and deliberately stopped praying” so as to rely exclusively on herself and to make all decisions about her life in freedom. She received a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Freiborg summa cum laude. Her dissertation was titled, “On the Problem of Empathy.” She later worked with her mentor Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. She embraced Catholicism during her studies.
Two episodes stand out in her move from the perceived freedom of atheistic self-dependence to the radical freedom of those who live under the cross of Christ. The first was when she visited with the young widow of a colleague and friend killed in World War I. Though bereaved the widow’s faith was such that she consoled those who came to console her. Recalling the incident later, Stein wrote, “It was my first encounter with the cross and the divine power that it bestows on those who carry it. For the first time I was seeing with my own eyes the Church born from its redeemer’s sufferings triumphant over the sting of death. That was the moment my unbelief collapsed and Christ shone forth—in the mystery of his cross.” The second episode was her encounter with the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. Upon closing the book, which she read in one sitting she said, “This is the truth.”
Her remaining years were marked by carrying and living under the shadow of the cross. She had difficulty gaining admission to Carmel but was finally able to enter in Cologne in 1933. The pain she caused her family by her conversion and entry into religious life is indescribable.
Because of the increasing persecution of Jews in Germany she was secretly sent to the Carmel in Echt, Holland in 1938. At Echt she wrote her last work, fittingly titled, The Science of the Cross. She was taken from the Carmel on 2 August 1942 along with her sister Rosa who had become a Catholic though not a nun. A few days earlier, when questions about possible rescue were raised Stein dismissed them. “Do not do it. Why should I be spared? Is it not right that I should gain no advantage from my Baptism? If I cannot share the lot of my brothers and sisters; my life, in a certain sense, is destroyed.”
Stein carried her cross to Calvary 75 years ago today. She left behind 17 volumes of writings including difficult philosophical works, papers on educational theory, and a huge trove of letters to a diverse group of correspondents. The letters are her most accessible writing.
Released from the shackles of the illusory atheistic freedom she found radical freedom in the science and shadow of the cross. In the homily at her canonization Mass, St. Pope John Paul quoted Stein:
"Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love.
And do not accept anything as love which lacks truth!"
One without the other becomes a destructive lie.
Sometimes one stands in front of a history such as this and realizes that there is nothing more to say.
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD