Saint Edith Stein: philosopher, Christian feminist, Auschwitz victim

by frankbeswick

Edith Stein died prematurely, a Jewish-Christian victim of the Nazis, but her philosophical thought is taken seriously by many scholars

On the ninth of August 1942,seventy five years ago today, Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, and a group of over two hundred others, including small children, were herded into a cottage converted into a gas chamber at Auschwitz and within minutes all were dead. Thus perished one of Europe's leading female thinkers,who until Hitler interfered, was acknowledged as the leader of the Christian women's movement in Europe. But the memory of her powerful personality and, moreover, her thought lives on, and eventually she was declared a saint.

Picture of Auschwitz courtesy of Waldomiguez

Edith's Early Life

She was born into a large German-Jewish family on Yom Kippur [ the Day of Atonement] in 1891, a fortuitous birthday that she would eventually come to regard as a sign of the fate that she and her compatriots would undergo at the hands of evil.  From early on she was academically advanced and displayed a great love of learning. Having dropped out of school during an emotional period during her teens she kept on reading, and when she returned to school due to her enormous intellect she quickly made up lost ground and by 1916 had acquired a Ph.D in philosophy. For a while she went through  a period of atheism. 

But 1916 was a time of crisis in Europe, and Edith, a patriotic German, signed on as a nurse. She volunteered to go to the Front to tend wounded soldiers, but the decision was made that she be posted to the infectious diseases unit. There she displayed great devotion to tending victims, despite the risk to her own life. After the war she returned to academia, where she was a student of the Phenomenologist Husserl, where she wrote her first work, On the Problem of Empathy. She was also deeply aware that the state or powerful forces who seize control of it tended to interfere in individual life, quite prescient as events were to turn out. In response she wrote An Investigation Concerning the State, which argued that there is a personal sphere into which the state must not interfere.  In this  she was influenced by the writings of Cardinal Newman, which she translated into German.

But in 1921 came the turning point in her life, she read the biography of St Teresa of Avila.Already under Husserl's influence she had recognized humanity's capacity to discover objective truth and under the influence of her colleague Scheler she had come to appreciate Catholicism and see its merits. In one sleepless night she read the whole biography and in the morning said to herself, "This is the truth." She began to prepare for  baptism and in 1922 she was baptized. Immediately she asked could she become a nun in St Teresa' s Carmelite order, whose nuns live a life of deep prayer, but her spiritual adviser told her that it was too early in her Christian life, and so she became a  teacher at a Catholic girls' college at Speyer, where she worked until 1932.

During this time there were frustrations.  In 1932 despite having done serious academic work on Phenomenology and Thomism, the Catholic philosophy  of Thomas Aquinas, she was invited to a conference on the subject where her work was discussed, but as a women she was not invited to speak. Furthermore, when she applied to present her habilitation, a post-doctoral thesis      required for teaching in German universities, even Husserl turned her down as he did not think that females should occupy professorial chairs. Eventually she found a role as teacher of Pedagogy at Munster, where she attempted to develop a scheme for girls' education. She became acutely aware of the difficulties that women face in their advancement. 


Towards the End

But in 1933 things changed. Despite her having become a Catholic she still  was devotedly Jewish, and already some Nazi-supporting students were giving her difficulties. After a short vacation in which her family told her that Jews were already suffering minor problems she returned to college, only to find that as she had not an Aryan certificate her job had been withdrawn. She saw this as the sign that she was to join the Carmelites and by 1934 she had become a contemplative nun given over to a life of prayer. While as a Jewish convert to Christianity she was spared the worst of the sufferings of her people,she was aware of the looming menace and wrote to the pope warning him that while the Jews were the first to suffer, Catholics would be next on the list. 

The Carmelites were prudent to move her  to the Netherlands, where they thought that she would be safe. Her sister Rosa, a Carmelite tertiary [associate], went with her and was applying for a move to a Carmelite convent in Switzerland when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. For two years Edith and Rosa, as Jewish Catholics, were tolerated, despite having to report to the Gestapo once a week.

But in 1942 the Dutch Catholic bishops defied Nazi orders by condemning the deportation of the Jews. Seyss-Inquart, the Reichs Commissar for Occupied Territories, himself a lapsed Catholic,  in retaliation ordered the rounding up of Jewish converts to Catholicism. Edith and Rosa were taken away and held for a short while in holding camps in the Netherlands. There a sympathetic official impressed by Edith's calm, which derived from her deep spirituality, offered to arrange her escape, but she refused the privilege,  saying that she wanted to share the destiny of her people and would accept no privileged exceptions for herself. Already she saw the Jews' suffering as an atonement for the sins of humanity  which in her case was symbolized by her birth on Yom Kippur, though she saw it through the light of the Christian doctrine that humans share the redemptive suffering of Christ. 

On 7th August she and others,including Rosa,  were sent to Auschwitz, but like many she never entered the camp, but was murdered outside it soon after disembarking from the train. The bodies were buried in a mass grave,but later exhumed and burned. But her works survived as did her memory, and eventually John Paul II,himself part Jewish,  declared her a saint. Later, Pope Benedict the Sixteenth was to declare her one of the patrons of Europe, three male and three female saints who exemplify the highest values of Christian Europe.  

As for the wretched Seyss-Inquart. He had never been a Nazi party member, but was an Austrian supporter of Anschluss who was sucked into association with the Nazis and used. In 1944 he summoned up the courage to defy Hitler's order to destroy Dutch port facilities,seeing no point in doing so. The Allies arrested him in Hamburg and he was tried at Nuremburg. The sentence was death. He accepted his punishment as what he deserved and wrote a strongly worded rejection of Naziism, finally being accepted back into the Catholic Church from which he had drifted away. Edith would have seen this not as her victory, but God's success. 

Edith's Feminism

She was devoted to the improvement of women and the end of discrimination against  them. But Edith's feminism has roots different from modern feminism, which draws its origins from liberalism and socialism. She was deeply and profoundly Catholic, and she rooted her feminism in an awareness that men and woman share a common humanity, but are different and complementary sides to the same human race. Edith never made the mistake of trying to model women's lives on men's by imitating the male love of power  and careerism. Yes,she wanted women to have careers, but she believed that women could only be themselves if they put a feminine stamp on the activity they were performing. She believed that women were particularly suited for careers in education, medicine and social work, along with politics and law.

She never made the mistake of thinking that to promote equality we had to deny the biological difference between the sexes, and she was acutely aware that men and women differed from each other. She  also never made the mistake of disliking men, though she was unimpressed by male sexism when she met it. She would, however, have no truck with feminists who are unfriendly to males or belittle them. 

Girls' education was her professional specialism. She would have been horrified by those private Islamic girls' schools who educate girls only in religion and housework/childcare. For Edith girls should enjoy access to all subjects. She was of the opinion that the unique nature of a female was to want to fulfill herself totally. In this she anticipated those in the women's movement who aspire to "have it all" but she would have objected to concept of having as it implied possessiveness.She would have preferred doing it all or being it all. I think that she misunderstood men insofar as she thought that men were content to be specialists in one area to the exclusion of others. While this may be true of some men, there are those of us who share the female desire for a wider, more balanced life than can be obtained by narrow specialization.Edith would have understood and agreed with those women who opt for a lifestyle in which career is balanced with personal life.

She was a devout Catholic and completely devoted to Christ, often spending hours a day in adoration while she was in the convent. She was also completely devoted to the church. The question of the role of women in the church exercised her, and she looked forward to the day when women had an expanded role and an ordained ministry, though at a time when the church was under pressure from Nazis, Communists and Secularists she took care not to rock the boat in this matter. 

Finally,she was convinced that women had a special role in God's war against evil, as she thought that women were especially spiritually sensitive. This seems to be borne out by the fact that women seem on the whole to be more religious than men are, but we can overstate the differences. 

Edith was a woman who accepted that truth can be known, a challenge to our post-truth era, and who lived in the truth as she saw it. Alisdair McIntyre, a philosopher also a convert to Catholicism said that she lived her philosophy, and he contrasted her to her erstwhile colleague, Martin Heidegger, who  attempted to become the Nazi party's leading philosophical light, but later tried to explain away his Nazi sympathies. But Edith won again, as late in his life Heidegger made his peace with Catholicism and returned to the church.

Updated: 08/09/2017, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 04/29/2024

I do not ,know ,whether she had the time to clarify the boundaries between the two spheres before she died.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/29/2024

The second paragraph to the first subheading, Edith's early life, advises us that "She was also deeply aware that the state or powerful forces who seize control of it tended to interfere in individual life, quite prescient as events were to turn out. In response she wrote An Investigation Concerning the State, which argued that there is a personal sphere into which the state must not interfere."

Is it known how St. Edith Stein defined individual and personal lives and what spheres she judged untouchable by outsiders such as "the state"?

frankbeswick on 04/26/2024

Probably.a story,or proverb has a power that philosophical definitions lack.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/26/2024

Thank you for your explanation in answer to my previous, same-day observations and question.

Elvis Presley's song Walk a mile in my shoes arises from the Southern States' Cherokee tribal saying, "Don't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes."

Might that empathetic definition present what interpreters such as actors, biographers and portraitists seek?

frankbeswick on 04/26/2024

The problem with empathy is how to explain our knowledge of another person's feelings and viewpoints.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/25/2024

The second paragraph to the first subheading, Edith's early life, advises us that "After the war she returned to academia, where she was a student of the Phenomenologist Husserl, where she wrote her first work, On the Problem of Empathy."

How did she perceive empathy as problematic?

frankbeswick on 08/12/2017

There is so much to say about Edith's thought that I had to be selective, for her philosophical thinking was powerful and required much explanation, more than could be handled in a Wizzley article. She also left some spiritual writing that expressed her religious feelings and thoughts. Fortunately the Nazis were unaware of it and so it survived.

WriterArtist on 08/12/2017

Had it not been for Hitler, the massacres would not be gruesome and so many. Saint Edith was yet another victim of the Hitler era. However, her work remains and it is interesting to see that her life was instrumental in improving the status of women.

frankbeswick on 08/12/2017

Good point, Derdriu. There are mass graves and pits where the Nazis dumped cremated remains outside the camp. Humans should never build on these. But while we respect them, nature slowly takes over and reclaims them. This is good, for it is Mother Nature's healing.

Every now and again genocidal hatred explodes in the world: Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia, Sudan. Where next? And When? Genocide does not just spring up, for it brews in a poison cauldron often over centuries. So counter-genocidal cultural institutions, such as the use of Auschwitz as a memorial and a warning, work against the spreading of the poison

DerdriuMarriner on 08/11/2017

frankbeswick, The manner of her death, and that of others, makes the ground outside --
in addition to that within -- Auschwitz a place that must be memorialized, protected and respected for all time.

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