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Edith Stein Biography

Edith Stein’s parents – Auguste Courant and Siegfried Stein – both come from Upper Silesia. After their marriage in 1871 they lived in Gliwice, where Siegfried’s mother ran a wood trade. But the cooperation was unfortunate, and in 1881 the couple decided to move to Lublinitz, Augustes’ home region, where they founded their own company in the same industry. The new company did not meet the Steins’ expectations and they were continuously supported financially by Augustes family. The decision to move to Lower Silesia in 1890, in search of better conditions, was made. Breslau was a dynamically developing city at the time, where the economic situation attracted many entrepreneurs, including Siegfried Stein. At the time of the move, in spring of 1890, the family already numbered eight persons: in Gliwice and Lublinitz six children were born: Paul, Else, Arno, Friede, Rosa and Erna (there were still four siblings who died in infancy).

Edith Stein was born in Breslau on 12.10.1891, the day of the largest Jewish festival Yom Kippur (“Day of Reconciliation”), as the youngest child. This day is one of the most important in the Jewish calendar. Edith should often come back to it, for example writing “From the life of a Jewish family”, a story about her own family. Beside many descriptions of the relatives we also find a characterization of my own: “(…) I was small and tender, despite all care always pale, the then blond hair (later they are darkened) I wore mostly open, held together only with a ribbon. Thus, according to Erna’s appearance, most people thought that they were older than me. Admittedly, as soon as I started to talk, one was amazed at the wisdom of the “little one’s nose”. (…) In the first year of my life I was of a mercurial liveliness, always in motion, bubbling over with funny ideas, cheeky and nasty, yet indomitable headstrong and angry when something went against my will.”

Edith Stein had a well protected and family- oriented childhood. The family members and relatives cared for her and spoiled her at the same time. The many cousins were ideal partners for never- ending games. The death of Siegfreid Stein in July 1893, who died of a sunstroke when Edith was almost two years old, cast a shadow on this atmosphere. From that moment on, Auguste Stein managed the company alone, with only limited support from the family. Thanks to her enthusiasm and talent, the company developed splendidly, despite initial difficulties. In her biography, Edith Stein recalls the words of a stranger she picked up in a tram: (…) Do you know who is the most capable businessman in the entire industry? That’s Mrs. Stein… (…).

Auguste Stein alone managed to secure the family’s livelihood and to provide the two youngest daughters with a basic higher education. They moved from a small rented apartment into larger apartments until Auguste was able to acquire a beautiful villa in which the entire family, comprising several generations, found a place to live.

Edith Stein’s education began with her sixth birthday, one year earlier than usual. She owed the gift to her eldest sister Else, who had obtained the permission of the headmaster. Edith was a gifted and diligent student and stood out from the rest of the class. So everyone was surprised when she gave up further education at the age of 14. In her autobiography she explains: (…) But I think that the decisive factor was then and now a healthy instinct, which told me that I had been sitting in the school desk long enough and needed something else. (…)

She spent the following ten months with her sister Else and her husband Max Gordon in Hamburg. As she herself admits, she consciously stopped praying there and moved away from the faith. After she had returned to Breslau, she had the opportunity to observe her sister Erna, who was already a student, in her preparation for the school lessons. She helped her with homework several times. In Edith, the idea of going back to school grew. At first she did not believe that she would be able to make up for what she had missed. But thanks to private lessons and great personal zeal, she succeeded in obtaining admission to the Gymansium as early as 1908. She passed the Abitur examination in March 1911 with an excellent result, after which she began her studies at the University of Breslau at the end of April. She chose lectures in German language and literature, history, psychology and philosophy. It was a time filled with work for Edith. Not only did she pursue her studies exclusively, she also worked in student organizations that aimed to bring about reforms in the educational system or dealt with women’s suffrage. Initially she planned to write her doctoral thesis in the field of psychology. However, she changed her mind when she first came into contact with Edmund Husserl’s philosophy, phenomenology. She was enthusiastic about this discipline as well as about the possibility of intellectual development dormant in it. At that time Edmund Husserl was professor at the University of Göttingen. Edith Stein decided that she would attend the lectures of the philosopher of our time – as she herself called Husserl – for one semester. In April 1913 she went to Göttingen.

At the time, she didn’t know she was going to spend two years there. In her autobiography she confesses: (…) The closer the end of the semester came, the more impossible it was for me to think that I should now leave and not come back. These months that lay behind me were not an episode, but the beginning of a new phase in my life. The seminar with Professor Husserl confirmed to her that the field of phenomenology is precisely that which she would like to deepen. She decided to stay at Göttingen University, pass the state examination there and write her doctoral thesis with Edmund Husserl.

The family had nothing against this decision. The professor also accepted their idea to write a paper on the “Problem of empathy”. However, he linked his permission to tackle such a demanding task to a previously passed state examination. Thus, Edith Stein also began an extensive preparation period, which was preceded by a short stay in Breslau. She also used this stay in Breslau to train as a nurse in the All Saints Hospital. In January 1915 she passed the state examination in philosophical propaedeutics, history and german. During this time the First World War lasted more than half a year. Immediately after passing her examination she received a message that she needed nurses in the Red Cross Disease Hospital in Moravian-Weissenkirchen. For half a year she performed a strenuous and hardscrabble medical service there. In September 1915 she returned to Breslau, where she worked on her doctoral thesis in peace. A number of coincidental events led her to become a Latin teacher at the Victoria School in Wroclaw (today’s General Lyceum No. 1 in Poniatowskiego Street). At that time she continued working on her doctoral thesis. In 1916 Edith Stein obtained her doctorate with the result summa cum laude, with highest praise. She spent the following two years as an assistant to Edmund Husserl at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau. In November 1918 she returned to Breslau, became socially and politically involved and taught philosophy at home. In the following years she also tried in vain to obtain a habilitation – the then German law was not favourable to women in this matter.

When she spent her holidays in August 1921 with her friend Hedwig Conrad-Martius in Bad Bergzabern, events happened that changed her life significantly. This happened through special reading. Since her student days in Göttingen Edith Stein met people who were fascinated by the Christian faith, but only after reading The Life Story of Saint Teresa of Avila did she finally decide to convert to the Christian faith. On 1.01.1922 she was baptized in Bad Bergzabern. This decision was not supported by the mother, who was a believing Jew and regularly went to the synagogue. Later, however, after seeing the positive spiritual changes of her daughter, she accepted the decision.

For the following ten years she worked in Speyer as a teacher at a Dominican girls’ gymnasium, where she also translated and published scientific works. She has also lectured at numerous congresses and pedagogical lectures in Germany and abroad. In 1931 she accepted a teaching position at the Institute for Pedagogy in Münster. After Hitler seized power in 1933, she was suspended on the basis of the so-called “Law for the Restoration of the Civil Service”. A great wish of Edith Stein, since the moment of her baptism in 1922, was to join Carmelite Monastery. With the final decision, however, she held back because of her mother. She feared that she would cause this great sorrow. Moreover, her spiritual mentors advised her against this step, arguing that she was more needed “in the world”. But at the moment when the National Socialists deprived her of the opportunity to work, nothing stood in her way to realize her long-prepared plans. In 1933, during a stay in Breslau, she shared her decision with her friends and family. There was no lack of questions and concerns on the part of the family, especially the mother, who made her daughter’s decision difficult. The atmosphere in the family house deteriorated noticeably. When on October 13th, the day after her birthday, Edith was leaving Wrocław, her sisters Erna and Rosa accompanied her on the way to the station.

On 14.10.1933 she joined the Carmelite Monastery in Cologne. Six months passed until her solemn attire, during which she adopted the sisters name Teresia Benedicta from the Cross (Teresia Benedicta a Cruce). In the convent she continued to work on scientific tasks. She finished her important work Finite and Eternal Being. Rosa Stein, who had also converted to the Catholic faith, joined the Carmelite Monastery in Cologne and did not become a nun herself. In 1938 Teresia Benedicta took the eternal vow of the cross. After the events of the “Reichskristallnacht” (Crystal Night) in November 1938, people of Jewish descent in Germany could no longer feel safe. It was decided to move the two sisters to the Carmelite monastery in Echt, Holland, on New Year’s Eve 1938. There Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross worked on the work “Kreuzeswissenschaft” (Science of crucifixion), which deals with the person of St. John of the Cross, the reformer of the Carmelite orders. She could no longer finish the work, since she was arrested by the Gestapo on 2 August 1942 together with her sister Rosa. Through the interim camps in Amersfoort and Westerbork, the two sisters were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There they were murdered, probably on 9.08.1942, in the gas chamber. In this way the life of an extraordinary woman, Jewish women, philosopher and catholic nun ended.