Stein Is Killed by the Nazis Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Born into a German Jewish family, Edith Stein converted to Roman Catholicism and became a Carmelite nun. After her arrest by German authorities in the Netherlands, she, along with her sister, was deported with other “Catholic Jews” and killed at Auschwitz in Poland. Her subsequent canonization in 1998 raised the issue of whether she was martyred as a Catholic or as a Jew.

Summary of Event

Nazi Nazism;Holocaust policy was designed to annihilate all people who (by Nazi racial definition) were Jewish, but the policy was kept secret and implemented only in stages. Many Europeans of Jewish heritage thus believed that they might be spared if they cooperated with the authorities. Some individuals who had been born into Jewish families but who had converted to Christianity were led to believe that they would be spared. Edith Stein’s life story shows that those hopes were illusory. Holocaust;Edith Stein[Stein] Jews;Holocaust War crimes;World War II Saints Executions;Edith Stein[Stein] [kw]Stein Is Killed by the Nazis (Aug. 9, 1942) [kw]Nazis, Stein Is Killed by the (Aug. 9, 1942) Holocaust;Edith Stein[Stein] Jews;Holocaust War crimes;World War II Saints Executions;Edith Stein[Stein] [g]Europe;Aug. 9, 1942: Stein Is Killed by the Nazis[00570] [g]Poland;Aug. 9, 1942: Stein Is Killed by the Nazis[00570] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Aug. 9, 1942: Stein Is Killed by the Nazis[00570] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Aug. 9, 1942: Stein Is Killed by the Nazis[00570] [c]Women’s issues;Aug. 9, 1942: Stein Is Killed by the Nazis[00570] Stein, Edith Stein, Auguste Courant Husserl, Edmund

Stein was born into a middle-class German Jewish family in Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland) on October 12, 1891. Her family was well assimilated into German culture, even as it was true to its observant Jewish heritage. Stein’s father died when she was only two years old, and she was devoted to her pious and hardworking mother Auguste Courant Stein. In her mid-teenage years Stein said she gave up all religious belief and became an atheist. She showed her intellectual brilliance in secondary school and entered Breslau University when she was nineteen years old, one of only a few women to enter university training in Germany at that time. In 1913 she entered Gottingen University; she eventually moved to Freiburg University in 1916, where she completed her doctoral dissertation (On the Problem of Empathy) and earned her doctorate in philosophy in 1917 under the direction of German philosopher Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. While his student, she came into close contact with others of Jewish background who had converted to Christianity, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. After earning her doctorate, she became a major proponent of Husserl’s work.

Even with her academic achievements, she found that as a Jewish woman she had no chance of gaining a professorship at a German university. While staying with friends in 1921 she read the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), founder of the Carmelite order of nuns. Stein became deeply moved and prepared for her baptism as a Roman Catholic. Her conversion would be greatly painful to her mother, so she proceeded cautiously and deliberately, spending considerable time with her family even while studying Catholicism. She was baptized January 1, 1922, and took a teaching position at a Catholic school for women in Speyer, where she resided among Dominican sisters. She remained there until 1931.

Stein’s publications in philosophy, her teaching, and her presentations on the role of women in education were all widely praised, particularly within the Catholic community in Germany. In 1932, she took a position at an educational institute in Muenster, and her German translation of Thomas Aquinas’s Quaestiones disputatae de Veritate (1256-1259; English translation, 1932) appeared in the same year. In early 1933, Adolf Hitler Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;Nazism took power in Germany, ending Stein’s chances for an academic career; Hitler’s rise would also lead to her death in 1942. She was considered of the “Jewish race” under Nazi definitions, and her Catholic faith was disregarded.

In the face of the Nazis, Stein joined the Carmelite order of nuns, a strictly cloistered community with convents throughout the Roman Catholic world. At the age of forty-two she entered the convent as a novice, taking the name Sister Teresa Benedicta in honor of Saint Teresa, who had been a strong influence on Stein’s life. Stein realized that the decision would be a bitter pill for her mother, and she broke the news to her as gently as possible. During that same year she wrote a brief autobiography, Aus dem Leben einer jüdischen Familie Life in a Jewish Family (Stein) (1985; Life in a Jewish Family, 1986), which showed great respect for her Jewish family and upbringing. From her point of view, being a daughter of the Jewish people was not inconsistent with her position as a dedicated Christian nun. Unlike some converts from Judaism, she retained warm and positive feelings toward the faith of her parents, even as she dedicated herself to a disciplined Christian life.

During the early years of Nazi rule, many German Jews hoped they could remain in their homeland until times improved. Jews who had converted to Christianity were particularly hopeful, even after the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 defined “the Jew” in biological terms. These hopes were crushed by the violence of the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938. On the night of December 31, Stein escaped the Nazis by crossing the border into the Netherlands to join the Carmel cloister at Echt.

In Echt, Stein was assigned to continue her philosophical and theological work, turning to a study of Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591). When Hitler attacked Poland in 1939, the Netherlands declared its neutrality, but the Nazis nevertheless overran the country in 1940. By 1942, the deportation of Dutch Jews began in earnest, though the Nazis claimed that converts to Christianity would not be harmed. To protest Nazi racism and anti-Semitism, the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands publicly issued a pastoral letter. In retaliation, the German occupation authorities dropped the exemption for converts and began arresting people of “Jewish blood,” including Stein, all over the country. She had been hoping for a transfer to a Carmelite convent in Switzerland, but negotiations were difficult. The Gestapo arrested her and her sister Rosa Stein (who was also at the cloister) on August 2, and they were transported to Westerbork, the German concentration camp in the Netherlands. A few days later, the Dutch Jews at the camp were loaded onto cattle cars bound for Auschwitz.

Although no death certificate for Stein exists, all evidence indicates that she was killed on August 9, along with everyone else on that transport, on arrival at Auschwitz. Fragmentary evidence also suggests that she went to her death with quiet dignity, seeking to comfort the suffering people around her. Her written final testament indicates that she saw her death as submission to the will of God, for the honor and glory of his name, for the needs of his holy church, for the Jewish people, for the deliverance of Germany, and for her own relatives. Those who saw her during her final days spoke later of a saintly aura that seemed to surround her, in the middle of chaos and despair.

Significance

Edith Stein was recognized after World War II as an extraordinary woman and a brilliant intellectual at a time when few women were permitted an academic life. She was a dedicated convert to Christianity who nevertheless continued to honor her Jewish origins. She was a humble nun who sought the discipline of a strictly cloistered life while reaching out to people through her teaching and writing. She was a saintly martyr who was murdered by Nazi tyranny.

The case for Stein’s sainthood was advanced during the 1960’s. She was officially beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1987, and he elevated her to sainthood in 1998. This profound recognition was considered by some to be a positive gesture by John Paul II toward the Jews, but not all agreed with this assessment. Questions remain: Was Stein honored as a Jewish martyr or as a Christian martyr? Did her philosophical and theological writings perpetuate the concept of supercessionism, arguing that Christianity superseded Judaism after the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Did this supreme recognition of a woman who abandoned Judaism in favor of Catholicism imply that only those Jews who give up their faith are truly worthy? Among Christians and among Jews opinions vary on whether Stein’s sainthood furthered Jewish-Christian understanding.

Stein’s death at the hands of the Nazis could easily have been forgotten within the vast bloodshed of World War II and the Holocaust. Her canonization, however, has kept her legacy alive. Holocaust;Edith Stein[Stein] Jews;Holocaust War crimes;World War II Saints Executions;Edith Stein[Stein]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berkman, Joyce Avrech, ed. Contemplating Edith Stein. South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. An anthology of scholarly papers that examine Edith Stein as a German, a Jew, a Catholic, a philosopher, and a feminist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cargas, Harry James, ed. The Unnecessary Problem of Edith Stein. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1994. Careful but sharply differing interpretations of Edith Stein and her case for sainthood, from Roman Catholic, Jewish, and personal perspectives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herbstrith, Waltraud. Edith Stein: A Biography. Translated by Bernard Bonowitz. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985. A brief but scholarly biography by a member of the Carmelite order. Based on a careful reading of Stein’s many philosophical and personal writings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacIntyre, Alasdair. Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-1922. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Considers Stein’s lifetime work in the context of her philosophical training in the early years of her studies and education.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mosley, Joanne. Edith Stein: Modern Saint and Martyr. Mahwah, N.J.: HiddenSpring, 2006. A biographical account of Stein’s work in Catholicism and religious philosophy. Also treats Stein’s legacy as a martyr.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spector, Scott. “Edith Stein’s Passing Gestures: Intimate Histories, Empathetic Portraits.” New German Critique no. 75 (1998): 28-56. A well-documented study of Stein, inspired in part by her canonization.

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