Sunday, August 12, 2012

Edith Stein

Poster with Edith Stein. I took the photo in her cell in St. Placidus guest house.
Note the mirror image showing a photo gallery and the entrance door.
Seventy years ago on August 9, 1942, the Nazis murdered Edith Stein in Auschwitz. Yesterday Elisabeth and I participated in a guided tour on Edith Stein's traces in Freiburg.

Stained-glass window in the choir ambulatory of the Freiburger Münster.
Note in the back the Carmel mountains, in front the cross, the seven-branched candelabrum
 and the evergreen Mediterranean cypress as a symbol of eternal life.
I am not going through the biography of that extraordinary woman that you may like to read in Wikipedia. Born as a Jew she became an atheist during her studies but while working as an assistant for the philosopher Edmund Husserl at Freiburg university during the First World War she lived her Damascene conversion.

Here on Goethestraße 63 Edith Stein lived as Husserl's assistant from 1916 to 1917
in about 200 meters distance from the professor's house on Lorettostraße 40.
When visiting the widow of one of her colleagues who had just fallen on the Western front she did not meet a desperate woman but a lady comforted and fortified by her Christian faith. Deeply disturbed Edith looked further and after having read the autobiography of the mystic St. Teresa of Ávila who on her deathbed ought to have said sin amor, todo es nada asked to be baptized catholic. When Edith wanted to enter Teresa's Order of the Carmelites right away the prior of the abbey of Beuron convinced her not to hide her light in a Carmel but rather to serve the catholic cause e. g. as a teacher.

Edith, being a woman, had tried in vain to become a full professor during her years with Husserl. Now in 1918 she gave up her assistantship with him to teach at the Dominican nuns' school in Speyer still continuing her philosophical studies trying to conciliate Husserl's phenomenology with Thomism.

Altarpiece in the cathedral of Speyer naming Edith Stein
a Jew, an atheist, a Christian,  a Carmelite, and a martyr.
I took the photo in August 2011 when visiting the exhibition:
The Saliens.
In fall 1931 she quitted Speyer and returned to Freiburg to work once again on a habilitation treatise at the philosophical faculty. Now she lived in a small room under the roof of the guest house St. Placidus of the monastery St. Lioba in Günterstal participating as closely as possible in the nuns' daily life.

Commemorative plate at the entrance to St. Placidus guest house at Günterstal
Sister Placida, her mentor, remembered: When I visited here in her cell in the hours of the early evening I was always astonished to find not too many books. It was the crucifix above her desk that taught her ultimate knowledge. One evening she looked up to the crucified King of the Jews and sighed: How much will my people have to suffer. I was stunned but considering the mounting hate against the Jews a thought flashed through my mind: Edith will make herself a sin offering for her people.

Edith Stein's desk in her cell at the St. Placidus guest house.
In 1932 Edith took up an appointment as a lecturer at the Institute for Pedagogy in Münster, Westphalia but following anti-Semitic legislation passed by the Nazi government in 1933 she, being a Jew, resigned not to damage the reputation of her institute. When a letter she had sent to the pope deploring the inhuman Nazi regime in Germany remained unanswered Edith considered that she was of no use anymore in this world and entered the Discalced Carmelite monastery St. Maria vom Frieden (Our Lady of Peace) at Cologne in October 1933. She took the name Teresia Benedicta a cruce (Teresia Benedicta of the Cross).

Following her arrest in a Dutch Carmel on October 2nd, 1942, a Gestapo henchman asked her about her confession. She answered Catholic, but he retorted: You are just a Jew. When five days later a train took her to her final destiny Edith subsequently confessed: I shall die for my people.

Commemorative stone in Freiburg's university church.

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