Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a Carmelite nun, was born Edith Stein in 1891in Poland and was killed in Auschwitz on August 9, 1942. Edith and her sister Rosa, along with other Jews who had become Catholics, were arrested by the Nazis occupying the Netherlands in retaliation for the denunciation by the Dutch bishops of Nazi anti-Semitism.
There has often been criticism of the silence of the Church with regard to the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Before he became Pope Pius XII, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli had been the papal nuncio to Germany during the 1930’s and negotiated a treaty, or concordat, between the Vatican and Nazi Germany. Gerard Noel has published a new book, Pius XII: The Hound of Hitler, which focuses on the crushing conflict the Pope experienced within himself and the deep personal toll it took on him.
Pius XII’s fears for the Church were only increased by the Nazi extermination of Jewish converts to Catholicism in the Netherlands. A broader analysis of the Pope’s situation makes it seem almost impossible. Events were beyond the ability of any one person to change or control. Mary Doria Russell, in A Thread of Grace, portrays the complexity of the Italian resistance to the Holocaust. The sheer caprice of war annihilates and spares individuals and communities at random. Most Italian Jews were saved by their neighbors and complete strangers. Unfortunately, this was not the pattern in the rest of Europe.
St. Edith Stein could not justify the horrendous evil that was to be visited on her people in any theological sense but that of the cross. In her final few days at Auschwitz, Edith and her sister Rosa made an indelible impression on some of the children. As the survivors tell it, many mothers were so traumatized that they collapsed emotionally. Edith and Rosa comforted and held the children and did what they could to meet their needs. Edith Stein’s contribution to the philosophy of experience was the notion that our identity is created not through an Ego that apprehends others. Rather, the Ego arises out of our identification with the needs, desires, and feelings of others. We come to be, as self-conscious beings, through compassion.
In her final days, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross showed that her philosophy of compassion was not just an intellectual construct but the framework of her life and legacy to us.
August 9 is the feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was not only a Carmelite nun who went to her death at Auschwitz but also one of the foremost philosophers of the twentieth century, Edith Stein.
The broad outlines of her life are well known. The cherished youngest child of a Jewish family, the brilliant atheist student of Edmund Husserl converts to the Catholic faith after reading the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. She tries unsuccessfully to get an audience with the Pope in order to encourage him to issue an encyclical denouncing anti-Semitism. Edith Stein joins the Carmelites and becomes Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross as the Third Reich begins its restrictions on German Jews. Her order tries to protect her by moving her to the Netherlands. She is once again in danger after that fall of the country to Germany. The Dutch bishops issue a statement denouncing Nazi anti-Semitism. In response the Nazis round up Catholic Jews including Edith Stein and send them to Auschwitz where she was gassed to death within a week of arrival.
Edith Stein resonates deeply within the major human questions facing faith and society today. Her life and work dealt with the foundations of human self-awareness, the ability to know, and empathy. Relations between Christians and Jews, the identity of Jewish Christians, the response of the Catholic Church to the holocaust were personal issues for Edith Stein and are major social and religious challenges today.
At the turn of the century, while Freud was trying to understand neurosis in women, Edith Stein was among a vanguard of scholars interested in the nature of human understanding and consciousness. Today we would say that she was interested in neuroscience and psychiatry. Psychology was still a sub-discipline of philosophy. This focus on the nature of experience and awareness is called the study of phenomenology. One of her major contributions was the notion that we become aware of ourselves by experiencing the awareness and feelings of others. This is, of course, a great oversimplification. However, she rescued the ego from an encapsulated shell and posited that our sense of identity and awareness is the product of the experience of the other. The “I” is not something I create but is created in the process of interaction based on feeling what the other feels, knows, and senses.
The term in German is broader than our sense of empathy. It is an experience of oneness or solidarity, we might say. This solidarity with her Jewish identity did not leave Edith Stein and it was her wish that her baptism would not spare her from the fate of her fellow Jews. Her courage derived from a faith in the cross and hope in the resurrection for all people even those who put her and her family to death. The realization of the self in selfless service – from philosophy to a life that might have been called tragic if it had not been suffused with so much meaning.
If you have an interest in philosophy, I recommend Marianne Sawicki, Ph.D.’s Personal Connections: The Phenomenology of Edith Stein.
American Catholic has an easy to read summary St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.