Edith Stein Gassed at Auschwitz
BORN JEWISH, Edith Stein had drifted into atheism. Studying to become a teacher in the early twentieth century, she found only a great inward emptiness. She took a class in psychology, hoping to find meaning, but was disappointed because her teachers believed only in those things which could be defined and studied statistically. and scientifically.
Certain that there had to be more to human beings than chemicals, electrical impulses, and tissues, Stein searched through literature and philosophy for answers and discovered the work of Edmund Husserl. Husserl taught that mental and spiritual events are real and that many things can be understood only by intuition. It seemed to be what Stein was looking for. She became Husserl’s assistant.
But while studying at the University of Güttingen, she met Christians and found their thought richer than Husserl’s. A Christian widow asked her to organize her late husband’s papers, in which Stein read many references to Christ. To understand these, Stein read the New Testament. Now convinced Jesus was divine, she wrestled with which church to join. Reading the autobiography of fiery Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila convinced her to adopt Catholicism. She became a nun, taking as her new name “Teresa, Blessed by the Cross.” Her family rejected her.
Christian History #121, Faith in the Foxholes has an article on Edith Stein.
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With the coming of World War II, Stein saw that she endangered fellow nuns in her convent by remaining in Germany, since she was ethnically Jewish. She moved to the Netherlands, followed by her sister Rosa, who had also converted to Christianity.
Edith Stein could have escaped the gas chamber. The Catholic church had found a place for her in Switzerland. However, none could be found for Rosa. Stein loyally stayed with her sister, so both were in the Netherlands on 2 August 1942 when the Nazis arrested Catholic Jews.
This arrest was in retaliation against the Catholic bishops of the Netherlands, who a week before had read their people a letter protesting persecution of Jews. This letter also included a telegram from ten other Christian denominations.
Two SS officers knocked on the Carmelite convent door at 5:00 pm. Stein was working on her book The Science of the Cross. Thinking the officers had come about visas, the prioress sent Stein downstairs to speak with them. She was ordered to be ready to leave in five minutes. In the street a crowd gathered, calling the act an outrage. Rosa grew disoriented. Edith touched her hand and said, “Come, Rosa, we’re going for our people.”
The Nazis whisked them to police headquarters and around midnight sent them to a camp at Amersfoort. The next night they were transported to Westerbork. From there they were shipped to Auschwitz with many others, arriving on this day, 9 August 1942. An SS doctor separated out whomever he considered fit for work. Edith, Rosa, and two hundred and sixty two other Jews were immediately driven to two cottages where they were told to undress so they could shower and be deloused.
The Steins entered one of the cottages. Curiously, they noticed it had no windows. Some of the group panicked, guessing what lay in store. As many as possible were shoved inside. Anyone who balked was shot on the spot. Guards bolted shut the air-tight doors and discharged Zyklon-B gas into the room through ceiling vents. Within twenty minutes all 264 were dead.
Edith Stein's life and writings, centered on the cross, have inspired many Christians. In October 1998, Pope John Paul II declared her a saint.