Early feminist ● German Jewish philosopher ● Catholic intellectual ● Discalced Carmelite ● victim of the Shoah ● Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross ● “Virgin and Martyr.” These are just some of the descriptors that have shaped the remembrance of Edith Stein (1891-1942). Her memorial in the liturgical calendar falls on August 9, the presumed day on which in 1942 she was marched from the transport train into the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
Ways of remembering Edith Stein after her death in Auschwitz are many, and the topography of her memory includes sensitive terrain. Yad Vashem, for example, the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem, commemorates Edith Stein as a Jewish woman murdered by the Nazis: “Edith Stein was born in Breslau, Germany in 1891. Prior to WWII she lived in Koeln, Germany. Edith was murdered in the Shoah.” The Catholic and Carmelite identity that Edith Stein took to Auschwitz with her is inconsequential here. That identity of course is what the official Roman Catholic veneration of Edith Stein foregrounds, namely the fact that she sought baptism in the Catholic Church in 1922, lived as a committed Catholic Christian for twenty years of her life, and was taken to Auschwitz in 1942 in her Carmelite habit. Moreover, her death in Auschwitz was not unrelated to her Catholic faith — although that claim has been contested. Regarding the veneration of Edith Stein as a “martyr,” I suggest that two facts must be held together in any consideration of her murder at Auschwitz. First and foremost is the fact that she was a victim of the Shoah because of her ethnic Jewishness (she had left the Jewish faith behind years before becoming Catholic). Second is the fact that she was rounded up for transportation to Auschwitz in 1942 precisely as a Catholic Jew, in direct retaliation by the Nazi Regime against the Dutch Catholic bishops’ public condemnation of the persecution of Jews. This condemnation had taken the form of an open letter, read in all Catholic churches on Sunday, July 26, 1942. The Nazi Regime responded swiftly by rounding up hundreds of Roman Catholics of Jewish descent living in the Netherlands. Most of these Catholic Jews were then transported to Auschwitz, Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross among them. These two basic elements of Edith Stein’s forced journey to Auschwitz – her ethnic Jewishness, and the Dutch Catholic bishops’ public protest against the persecution of Jews, which was the direct cause of her arrest – need to be acknowledged together.
There are other parts of Edith Stein’s identity that should be held together with her ethnic Jewishness and her Catholic faith. I am here thinking especially of her scholarly passion. It is important to recognize that Edith Stein was one of the first women to aspire to a post-doctoral degree and to a career in academia in Germany, and that she did not leave behind that scholarly passion when she entered the Carmel in Cologne in 1933. Sr. Teresia Benedicta a Cruce (a name she chose for herself, with that particular spelling) embraced Carmelite religious life with all her scholarly skills in hand, and her Carmelite superiors knew to appreciate those skills. Against Carmelite conventions at the time, her Provincial explicitly permitted ongoing scholarly work for Sr. Teresa Benedicta, which she clearly delighted in as her letters from Carmel show. Her last book, a study of St. John of the Cross, was all but complete when she went to Auschwitz.
That it is possible to venerate Edith Stein on August 9 with her fierce intellect is shown by the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. It remembers her as “Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), Philosopher, Monastic, and Martyr 1942.” That alone is a vast improvement over the conventional titles of “virgin and martyr” in the Roman Catholic calendar. The Collect for her memorial in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer reads as follows:
Pour out your grace upon thy church, O God; that, like your servant Edith Stein, we may always seek what is true, defend what is right, reprove what is evil, and forgive those who sin against us, even as your Son commanded; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit be all honor and glory, now and for ever.
This way of remembering and honoring Edith Stein – as a philosopher, monastic, and martyr – offers a vision of a future in which women scholars who also live holy lives are not shorn of their scholarly passion when the church officially recognizes their sanctity.