Edith Stein was born on 12th October 1891 in Breslau, in an observant Jewish family, during the celebration of the holiest Jewish holiday – Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. She was the youngest of eleven children of Siegfried Stein and Auguste Stein, nee Courant. Edith’s father died when she was only 2 and her mother raised the children and ran the husband’s company.
At the age of 14, Edith decided to abandon her faith and for the next 16 years she declared herself to be an atheist. She claimed it was the time of seeking the truth. In 1911-1913 she studied German Philology, History and Psychology at Breslau University. At that time she also fought for women’s rights in Germany. In 1913 she moved to the University of Gőttingen, where she began studies in Philosophy. There – guided by Edmund Husserl – an outstanding phenomenologist – her dissertation “On the Empathy Problem” gave her a PhD degree with summa cum laude honor. At that time she met Max Scheler, one of the most important German ethicists, who draw her attention to the Catholic faith and to Roman Ingarden.
The death of her close friend, Adolf Reinach and the attitude adopted by a young widow, full of faith and trust, was the turning point in her life. Edith Stein recalled these moments: At Reinach’s funeral for the first time I met the Cross and God’s power given to those who carry it. For the first time I saw the Church in its victory over the sting of death. At this moment my lack of faith disappeared and I saw Christ in the mystery of the Cross.
Working at university, Edith Stein began to study Christian thought – she read New Testament, Kierkegaard and Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola.At that time her career path was closed – first of all, because she was a woman, and also because of her Jewish origin. It was the time of intense search for the truth for her.
In summer 1921 she spent a few weeks in Bergzabern, staying with one of Husserl’s disciples – Hedwig Conrad Martius. In her home library she found The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila – an autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila. Having read the book, she stated – “This is the truth”. It became clear to her then that the truth does not live within university walls but in the Church.
On 1st January 1922 she was baptized. She made the first journey after her conversion to Breslau, where she confessed to her mother” “Mum, I am a Catholic”. They both cried. Martius wrote: Look, two Israeli women without any false feature.
She received the sacrament of Confirmation only a month later, on 2nd February.
She spent the next years searching for a new direction in her life. In 1923-1931 she lectured in secondary school for girls and in the Institute of Educating Dominican Nun Teachers at Saint Magdalena monastery in Speyer. In the meantime (in 1928) she published her translation of the letters and a diary of another convert (from Anglicanism) – cardinal John Newman. In 1931-1932 she published a two-volume translation of Saint Thomas work Disputed Questions on Truth.
Her search for the vocation was completed when she decided to join the Carmelite monastery. On 14th October 1933 she joined the Carmelite monastery in Koln, and on 15th April 1934 she took the habit and the name of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (referring to Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Benedict). This is how she recalled her admission to the Carmelite monastery: “I do not miss anything I have had in the world, I also have everything I have missed in the world; I continuously thank God for the undeserved and great grace of vocation”
On Christmas Eve of 1936 the Carmelite monastery admitted her younger sister, Rose.
After the anti-Semitic events of the Crystal Night in November 1938 it became obvious that the life of the converts was also threatened, therefore on 31st December 1938 Teresa Benedicta left the monastery in Koln and moved to the Carmelite monastery in Echt in the Netherlands. There, to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of John of the Cross, he was commissioned to write a book on this Spanish mystic and saint of the Carmelite community. Her book was titled: “The Science of the Cross”.
On 2nd August 1942, while working on the Science of the Cross, she and her sister, Rose, also a Carmelite nun, was arrested by the Gestapo. On 7th August they were transported to Auschwitz, where she died as a martyr on 9th August in a gas chamber. A small picture was found in her cell. On the other side Teresa Benedicta wrote an act of sacrificing her life in the intention of converting the Jews.
On 1st May 1987 John Paul II beatified and on 11th October 1998 canonized Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.