Born in Breslau, Germany, the youngest of 11 children of a devout Jewish family, Edith Stein is one of the 20th century's most famous converts from Judaism to Catholicism, known as both a philosopher and a holy Carmelite nun who perished in Auschwitz.
Studious and intellectual from a young age, Stein became somewhat exhausted by study around the age of 13, and not long after became religiously indifferent despite her mother's devotion and strong influence. In 1911 she entered the University of Breslau where, disillusioned by the materialism in her psychology courses, she discovered the work of the Jewish philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), a leader of the movement known as phenomenology. Stein was captivated by the Husserlian promise of penetrating into the nature of reality through a better grasp of the operation of consciousness, and moved to Göttingen to study with him.
Stein flourished as a student of phenom-enology, which she saw as a counterweight to scepticism and materialism, but later became alienated by Husserl's move toward a more idealistic philosophy along Kantian lines. Still, Stein followed Husserl to Freiburg in 1916 and obtained her doctorate in 1917.
Stein was spiritually influenced by the Jewish convert and philosopher Max Scheler (1874-1928), as well as by Husserl's assistant Adolf Reinach (1883-1917), a Jewish convert to Protestantism. The company of Reinach's wife, grieving after the loss of her husband during World War I, led her closer to Christianity. More importantly, her discovery of the writings of St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) in 1921 gave her, as she said, what she could not find in the scientific methodology of Husserl or even in the devout Jewish home of her mother.
Shortly thereafter, Stein began instruction in Catholicism and was baptized in Bergzabern, Rhineland-Palatinate, in 1922. Taking Teresa as her baptismal name, she determined to enter the Carmelite order, but ended up spending several years teaching in Catholic institutions. The anti-Jewish laws of 1933 meant she could no longer continue, and so Stein entered Carmel in 1933, taking the habit in 1934 as well as the name Sister Benedicta of the Cross. Having made her solemn profession in 1938, at the end of that year she was, because of rising anti-Semitism, smuggled across the border to the Carmelite convent at Echt in Holland. In July 1942 the Catholic bishop of Utrecht protested publicly at the Nazi treatment of the Jews in occupied Holland, after which all Jewish converts, previously spared harassment, were rounded up. Following a cruel and humiliating deportation, Stein and her sister Rosa (also a convert, who joined her as a worker in the convent but not a nun) died in Auschwitz, probably on August 9, 1942.
Stein left behind many writings on philosophy and theology, as well as memoirs, showing an original and penetrating mind imbued with a deep spirituality. She is considered by many a martyr for Catholicism, though at her arrest she told her sister, “We are going for our people.” She was declared a saint by John Paul II in 1998.
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