August 9th, is the Optional Memorial of Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Edith Stein was born, October 12, 1891, in Breslau, Germany to Jewish parents. The date of her birth coincided with the celebration of Yom Kippur, the Jewish “day of atonement.” The Torah states that Yom Kippur was the only time the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies and call on God’s name to offer sacrifice for the people’s sins. Providentially, on Easter Sunday, April 21, 1935, upon making her profession of vows as a Carmelite nun, Edith received the name “Sister Teresia Benedicta ac Cruce”, literally, “Sister Teresa, blessed by the Cross”. She believed God’s mission for her was to suffer in atonement for man’s sins. The future saint wrote: “I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take [it] upon themselves on everybody’s behalf,” and, “to intercede with God for everyone,” especially the Jewish people with whom she had tremendous affinity.
Edith Stein grew up in a devout Jewish family, but espoused atheism as an academic, before her conversion to Catholicism. A young woman with immense intellectual gifts, she dedicated herself to a search for the truth. At that time, German philosophy was preeminent. Following extensive studies at major German universities, Edith became an influential philosopher in her own right, and a renowned speaker on feminism. In 1913, she enrolled in G6ttingen University, to study under the guidance of Edmund Husserl. There she encountered Christians whose intellectual and spiritual lives she greatly admired.
While visiting Catholic friends, Edith came across the autobiography of the 16th century Carmelite nun, Saint Teresa of Avila, and spent an entire night reading it. The next year, (January 1, 1922) she was baptized into the Catholic Church. After her conversion to Catholicism, she continued to be a major force in German intellectual life. Although she had intended to do so immediately following her conversion, Edith entered the Discalced Carmelites in 1933.
Her commencement of religious life coincided with the Nazi’s consolidation of power in Germany. After the Kristallnacht attacks of November 1938, it was decided that it would be safer for her and for the Carmel in Cologne where she resided if Sr. Teresa Benedicta transferred to the Carmel at Echt in Holland. This occurred on New Year’s Eve night, 1938. She was warmly received in the Carmel of Echt. There she wrote her last work, The Science of the Cross.
Germany invaded Holland in 1940. Sr. Teresa Benedicta was arrested along with the members of her religious community, on August 7, 1942. The arrests were in retaliation for a letter by Dutch Bishops condemning the Nazi treatment of Jews. She was transported by train to the Auschwitz death camp where she died in a gas chamber the same year. Saint John Paul II canonized her in 1998. She is a co-patroness of Europe.
The following is the eye-witness account of Saint Teresa Benedicta’s arrest along with the members of her religious community, on August 7, 1942, from Frits van der Asdonk, a resident of Echt, Holland.
“[At] the end of July 1942, the Dutch Bishops took a stand, and from the chancel in every parish church of the country sounded a loud protest and condemnation of the injustice to the Jews of the country and elsewhere in occupied countries…
Revenge could be expected, but nobody thought of Sister Benedicta… in an enclosed convent… a nun… a Carmelite. Yet, this was exactly what happened, the Sunday after, in the early afternoon. All of a sudden sounded the war songs of the SS while a group of some forty soldiers marched through the Grote Straat and halted at the Carmel. The villagers were forced to clear the streets and withdrew behind the windows of their houses from which they watched the scene, praying and weeping. Sister Benedicta appeared after some 15 minutes in choirdress with the David Star; proudly walking right in the middle of the road with her sister a little behind her and the German SS forming a ‘guard of honour’ on the sidewalks of the street. From the windows came the farewell shouts of the people (‘Sister Benedicta’, ‘Sister Benedicta’) which Sister acknowledged as far as the end of the road where a Panzer lorry was waiting. What a lonely scene! What a lonely scene! I witnessed the scene from the windows of the first storey of my aunts’ house in the Grote Straat of Echt. I knew I had seen something historic, and whenever I revisit the Grote Straat at Echt I see in my memory’s mind a martyr who still lives on not only with God but also in the hearts of people.”
God, our Father, who brought the Martyr Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross to know your crucified Son and to imitate Him even until death, grant, through her intercession, that all mankind may acknowledge Christ as its Savior and through Him come to behold you for eternity.