The 'Other' Martyr of Auschwitz
By Dan Valenti (Jun 22, 2012)
When we hear of a saint called the "martyr of Auschwitz," most think of St. Maximilian Kolbe. There was, however, a second Catholic saint who died in the infamous Nazi prison camp.
Edith Stein was born in Breslau, Germany (what is now present-day Poland) on Oct. 12, 1891 to Jewish parents. Though she considered herself an atheist, Stein relentlessly pursued knowledge and truth. She believed anyone seeking truth, honestly and sincerely, was actually trying to find God. In retrospect, she observed that her so-called atheism was actually a roundabout attempt to find "the hidden God."
Edith had a child's curiosity blended with the scholar's thoroughness, and she read widely on a variety of subjects in an array of fields. She particularly enjoyed readings in philosophy, theology, and religion.
The Book that Changed Her Life
In her reading, she came across the Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. The book changed her life. Stein wrote later that upon reading the book, she knew she had discovered truth in the saint's writing. Saint Teresa (1515-1582) wrote the book near the end of her life.
Saint Teresa's descriptions of family life, and especially the way she doubted the goodness of her character, captivated Edith, who was fond of this passage: "The possession of virtuous parents who lived in fear of God, together with those favors [that] I received from His Divine Majesty, might have made me good, if I had not been so very wicked." Edith saw herself in the writing of St. Teresa, though not in any flattering sense.
Edith made the difficult decision to become a Catholic, struggling with this choice because of loyalty to her mother's Judaism. The daughter reached a point of having to make up her mind, and — realizing the roots of Catholicism could be found in the Old Testament and that Jesus represented its fulfillment — she took a courageous leap of faith. She was convinced she had found the truth, and on Jan. 1, 1922, Edith Stein was baptized into the Catholic Church.
'A Woman Must be the Handmaiden'
Edith quickly developed a deep love for the Blessed Mother. She saw in Mary the realization of the feminine ideal of maternity, love, and caring. In her writing, she presented Mary as the best role model for all women:
"Whether she is a mother in the home or occupies a place in the limelight of public life or lives behind her cloister walls, [a woman] must be the handmaid of the Lord everywhere. So had the Mother of God in all circumstances of her life. ... Were each woman an image of the Mother of God, a Spouse of Christ, an apostle of the Divine Heart, then would each fulfill her feminine vocation no matter what conditions she lived in and what worldly activity absorbed her."
Edith grew in faith, modeling her life after the Blessed Mother. At the relatively advanced age of 42, she made her first profession of vows as a Carmelite sister on Easter Sunday, 1935. She persisted in her studies, developed a rich and deep prayer life, and three years later, she took her final vows as Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. The decision characterizes the strength of this woman. Taking on the religious life can never be easy, at any age, but in one's 40s, there would likely be much more in the way of doubt and obstacle.
It's interesting to consider that in 1935, another saint was also undergoing a spiritual journey that would have great effect on the contemporary world. That would be St. Faustina Kowalska, an ordinary nun from an obscure convent in Poland, who, like Sr. Benedicta, drew strength from the Blessed Mother and through whom she strived to pattern herself.
In 1936, St. Faustina records in her Diary that the Blessed Mother appeared before her and pressed Faustina to her heart.
"From today onward," Faustina wrote, "I am going to strive for the greatest purity of soul, that the rays of God's grace may be reflected in all their brilliance. I long to be a crystal in ordfer to find favor in His eyes."
Horrors of the Nazi Invasion
By then, the horrors of the Nazi invasion of Europe were being planned by Adolph Hitler and would soon be under way. Sister Benedicta had an alert, intelligent, and probing mind braced with an enormous empathy with and for the suffering of others. The spread of totalitarianism across Europe weighed on the nun, and on Passion Sunday, 1939, she asked her superior for permission to "offer herself to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement for the peace of the world" and the conversion of the Jewish people. Her superior has the wisdom to realize that she had an extraordinary woman in her charge, and she acceded to the selflessly heroic request.
In July 1942, the Nazis began arresting Catholics of Jewish descent. Sister Teresa Benedicta and her sister, Rosa Stein, were captured, beaten, and sent to a prison camp in Holland. At the camp, in the name of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, Sr. Teresa Benedicta comforted and cared for frightened mothers and their children. She worked tirelessly on their behalf, not thinking of her own peril or her own fear.
The Germans transferred her to Auschwitz on Aug. 9, 1942. Prior to her transfer, she sent one last message to her mother prioress: "I am content now. One can only learn the Scientia Crucis ("the knowledge of the Cross") if one truly suffers under the weight of the Cross. I was entirely convinced of this from the very first, and I have said with all my heart: Hail, Cross, our only hope."
The exact date of Edith Stein's death is not known, although it is believe she died in the gas chambers shortly after her arrival. She was canonized on Oct. 11, 1998, by Pope John Paul II.