Who Is Edith Stein?

The words about her will soon outnumber the words by her, and that alone is no insignificant fact. Philosopher, lecturer, teacher, writer, and Carmelite, Edith Stein will be beatified in Cologne, Germany on May 1. The ceremony has been planned for a local soccer stadium so that the maximum number of people can attend.

She was born October 12, 1891 at Breslau, and died August 9, 1942 at Auschwitz. She was No. 44074.

The youngest of a large and happy Jewish family, Edith Stein was reportedly both precocious and distant as a child. Her father died when she was two, and her mother carried on the family trade with sufficient success to support all ten of her children and provide for their schooling as well. Edith undertook her college studies at Breslau, but when she considered the dissertation topic assigned her by Professor William Stern (“Children’s Thought Processes Examined through the Interview Method”) she knew she had to reject further investigations in psychology because, as she wrote, “it possessed neither the required foundation of refined first principles nor the capacity to formulate them on its own.”

She found a realistic opportunity in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, and so she went to study with him at Gottingen. By the time she arrived, in 1913, the bulk of the “Gottingen School” (including Dietrich von Hildebrand) had gone off to found their own careers. She became Husserl’s student and, later, his assistant. Characteristically, she interrupted her studies to serve as a Red Cross nurse, but returned to them aware that sometimes thinking is more productive than more tangible activity.

She writes in her autobiography, Life in a Jewish Family, that she dictated her thesis during her Easter vacation, 1916. The first section is devoted to “empathy” as an act of cognition (influenced by Husserl’s lectures); in the second section she sought to “show how the comprehension of mental associations differs from the simple perception of psychic conditions” (influenced by Max Scheler and Wilhelm Dilthey); later sections on empathy in the social, ethical, and aesthetic areas were not published along with the rest of the dissertation, which won her her Ph.D. in March, 1917. From the summer of 1916 until the beginning of 1918 she served as Husserl’s assistant, but she was frustrated by the nature of the work and by the fact that her own philosophic work was not being considered seriously. Despite a good recommendation from Husserl, she was unable to obtain a university teaching position, and so she privately tutored university students while writing articles and essays to support herself. Her writings on contemporary topics fired her burgeoning lecturing career, and began to build for her some modicum of popular success.

This work allowed her the freedom to travel and to visit with friends. In fact, it was during such a visit in the summer of 1921 that she selected, at random, The Book of Her Life by St. Teresa of Avila from a library shelf. She has written that from that time on she knew she would eventually live as a Catholic and as a Carmelite.

As it happened, she was baptized New Year’s Day, 1922. For eight years she taught at a women’s training institute run by Dominican Sisters at Speyer, teaching German and literature, a position she abandoned in 1931 because of her popularity as a lecturer. By 1933 she made another application for professorship, this time at Frieburg (where Martin Honecker and Martin Heidegger were on the faculty) but once again without success. She returned to her hometown, Breslau, and found work in February, 1933 at the Catholic Pedagogical Institute of Munster. She was fired that April, victim to Hitler’s National Socialism.

While she had professed private vows some five years before, she now received the permission of her confessor to seek admission to the Carmelite Order. She entered the Carmel at Cologne on October 14, 1933. She was professed there, but a few months later, on December 31, 1938, she escaped to Echt, The Netherlands in order to spare her community and herself. She remained at the Echt Carmel until the summer of 1942, but within a week of a pastoral letter of the Dutch bishops decrying the abuses of the Nazis, retaliatory measures were taken against all Catholic Jews. She was arrested August 2, deported August 7, and died two days later with her sister, Rosa Stein, who had also become a Catholic and a refugee in Holland.

Now she is to be beatified. No doubt her canonization will follow in due order. No miracles have been publicly reported yet, although many claim her intercession on matters of employment or housing. She is widely published in German, not so widely yet in English. Even so, all her manuscripts have not been published, and there are uncollected writings extant.

One must step back a bit from all the excitement and wonder how it is that this woman, who in any other society and at any other time might have been able to overcome the double obstacles of being female and of being Jewish, came to be female and Jewish in a Nazi Germany which could not accept her very real conversion as a fact, and which eventually killed her for it.


Life in a Jewish Family

Life in a Jewish Family, Edith Stein’s unfinished autobiography, tells her story from the year of her birth 1891 to 1916, evoking, as the title suggests, what it was like to grow up Jewish in early 20th century Germany. Edith began this account in 1933, after she had lost her job because of her race. Work on it stopped in 1935, after she made her first profession as a Carmelite, but she returned to it in 1939 after she had been sent to Holland and, it was thought, out of harm’s way. In 1942, she was arrested and sent east in a box car to a death she accepted as a sacrifice on behalf of the Jewish people.
The autobiography is the first volume of The Collected Works of Edith Stein to be published by the Institute of Carmelite Studies in Washington. Translated by Josephine Koeppel, OCD, it will serve to make accessible to many this remarkable woman. Her philosophical and theological writings are destined to have a profound influence, and her personal sanctity makes her a particularly timely model for Catholic intellectuals. But this warm and circumstanced account of her family and friends and early life makes her present to a far wider audience in a most effective way.
Sister Josephine has supplied an afterword which is a joy to read. She and Father John Sullivan, OCD, Chairman of the Institute of Carmelite Studies have done a splendid job with Volume One. Other volumes can be expected in the near future, a timely accompaniment to Edith Stein’s first step on the way to canonization.


  • Phyllis Zagano

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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