The Last Days of Edith Stein
As for what concerns our relations with our fellow men, the anguish in our neighbor's soul must break all precept. All that we do is a means to an end, but love is an end in itself, because God is love.
— Edith Stein
Edith Stein, also known as Saint Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, was put to death by poison gas in Auschwitz-Birkenau on August 9, 1942. Her life on earth was marked by great achievement, both as an intellect of great acuity and as a saintly nun of the Discalced Carmelites. Yet it was her last week on earth, from August 2nd to August 9th, that her greatness was fully unveiled.
A Brief Biography
Edith Stein was born on October 12, 1891, the youngest child of a large Jewish family, in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland). From an early age she exhibited a keen intellect, and was usually at the top of her class through most of her young life. She later studied philosophy and earned a doctorate under the phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl, at the University of Gottingen. She also served as a volunteer nurse during World War I.
While house sitting for a friend, she read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila in one night. When she closed the book in the morning, she desired to become Roman Catholic. After her baptism in 1922, she sought to enter a Carmelite convent, but was advised to wait by her spiritual director. For eleven years she traveled and lectured throughout Europe, and finally entered the Cologne Carmel in 1933. As a Carmelite nun she led the contemplative life of prayer, but continued to write. Nazism forced her to flee from Germany and find refuge in the Carmel of Echt, (Limburg) Holland. There she remained until her arrest by the Gestapo on August 2nd, 1942. One week later she was gassed in the Auschwitz death camp.
Sunday, August 2nd: the Arrest
It was on a Sunday afternoon, as the Carmelite Sisters of Echt were gathered for meditation, that the doorbell rang. Two members of the S.S. demanded that Sister Benedicta come with them within ten minutes. Despite the Sister's protests, there was no choice in the matter. The cause of her and all non-Aryan Catholic religious being arrested that day, was in consequence of the Dutch Bishops protesting the injustices perpetrated against the Dutch Jews.
As the street was filling with neighbors who loudly voiced their opposition, Edith said to her sibling who was staying at the monastery, “Come Rosa, we go for our people.” They were driven in a van to the S.S. headquarters at Roermond. In the evening, two police vans departed for Amersfoort. One van carried thirteen and the other seventeen people. They did not arrive till three in the morning, as the lead driver missed the turn.
Monday, August 3rd: Amersfoort Transit Camp
Unlike the relatively friendly treatment of the German S.S. in Echt, when the prisoners arrived in Amersfoort, they were treated very brutally. The guards prodded them with their rifle stocks and abusive language into the barracks. The beds in the barracks were made of iron frames without mattresses. Some tried to sleep, but the guards continually turned the lights on and off to deter possible escape.
There were other members of religious orders, including the Löb family, whose three sons were Trappists monks, and two daughters who were Trappistine nuns. They gathered together and prayed the Breviary and Rosary, where Edith was looked upon as their leader.
Tuesday, August 4th-Thursday, August 6th : Westerbork Transit Camp
On Tuesday evening, the prisoners were taken by train to Hooghalen railway station. They unloaded and then had to walk three miles through fields and forests till they reached Westerbork Transit Camp. There were about 1,200 Catholic Jews who were isolated from the rest of the prisoners. Of these, there were about a dozen members of religious orders. A Jewish business man from Cologne named Julius Markan, had been put in charge of the prisoners in the barracks. Both he and his wife were consequently spared from being deported.
Her Great Calm
Mr. Markan’s account of Edith is very significant: “Among the prisoners who were brought in on 5 August, Sr. Benedicta stood out on account of her great calmness and composure. The distress in the barracks, and the stir caused by the new arrivals, was indescribable. Sr. Benedicta was just like an angel, going around among the women, comforting them, helping them and calming them. Many of the mothers were near to distraction; they had not bothered about their children the whole day long, but just sat brooding in dumb despair. Sr. Benedicta took care of the little children, washed and combed them, looked after their feeding and their other needs. During the whole of her stay there, she was so busy washing and cleaning as acts of loving kindness that everyone was astonished.”
It is remarkable that in these moments of distress, when a sense of paralysis gripped so many, Edith had the capacity to not only remain calm, but to exert herself in showing compassionate love.
When reading her memoirs, Life in a Jewish Family, or when seeing some of her photographs, one could be tempted to think of Edith as somewhat of a cool intellect. However, when viewing the panorama of her life, her compassionate personality emerges and wonderfully harmonizes with her intellectual eminence.
She herself commented on this blending with a person named Dr. Wielek in Westerbork: “In one conversation she said to me: ‘The world is made up of opposites, but in the end nothing remains of these contrasts. What only remains is great love. How is it possible for it to be otherwise?’” Thus, love had become the dominate voice in her life.
It is likewise significant that in her doctoral thesis on The Problem of Empathy, she addresses the question, can one realize spiritual solidarity with another? Her own example as a prisoner provides the most eloquent answer, by which empathy merged into sympathy. She was nothing less than an “angel of compassion”, who sought to alleviate the sufferings of others, while seemingly oblivious to her own fears and pain. It is worth investigating a possible source for this strength.
In a scribbled note that Edith was able to send to the Prioress in Echt, she asked for the next volume of the Breviary, and remarked that “so far I have been able to pray gloriously.” One wonders how it could be so, given the chaos of the situation that she could “pray gloriously”? Perhaps her spiritual life was sufficiently deep that she could find calmness amid the pandemonium. Possibly her nine years as a Carmelite nun had prepared her for this moment, where a large measure of interior space was so essential.
Mr. Markan from Westerbork reported one conversation that he had with her, in which he asked, “What are you going to do now?” She responded: “So far I prayed and worked, from now on I will work and pray.” There is no indication of how she prayed, but it may have simply been an act of trust. She once wrote, “Lay all your cares trustingly in the hands of God, and let yourself be guided by the Lord just like a little child.” While many of those with whom she was interned had become engulfed with distress, she was a model of peace.
Two laymen who had come from the Echt Carmel with provisions, Pierre Cuypers and Piet van Kampen, were able to meet with Edith who shared with them a report of the conditions. “Sr. Benedicta told us all this calmly and composedly”, they said, ”In her eyes shone the mysterious radiance of a saintly Carmelite. Quietly and calmly she described everyone’s troubles but her own; her deep faith created about her an atmosphere of heavenly life.”
Friday, August 7th: Departure “to the East”
On Friday morning at three-thirty a.m., the barracks were cleared and the prisoners were ordered to line up along the road through the camp. They then moved towards the station, where they were literally crammed into cargo trains. They were so squeezed, that many died of suffocation en route.
The train traveled south east, ironically passing through Breslau, Edith’s birthplace. When the train stopped at Schifferstadt, Edith noticed a former student on the platform. She was able to convey this message for the Sisters, “Tell them I am on my way to the East.” This may have been simply a straightforward message, but for the Carmelite Sisters, it could easily have been interpreted metaphorically; going “to the “East”, may be understood as “going to eternity”.
A Short Video of a Westerbork Transport
The following video shows one of the 65 transports that went from Westerbork Transit Camp to Auschwitz-Birkenau. A total of 60,330 persons were transported, most of whom were gassed on arrival. When Edith Stein went on the third of these transports, the conditions were far worse than what appears here. I find it to be sad to see these poor people, some of whom appear to be married couples, are going unsuspecting to their deaths, while the Nazi authorities have an air of carrying out business as usual.
Saturday, August 8th- 9th: Arrival at Auschwitz and Death
The prisoners arrived at ten o’clock in the evening, having journeyed for two days in impossible conditions. Two workmen on the platform noticed Edith in her Carmelite habit, and commented that she was the only one who did not appear completely crazed. Communication between the workmen and prisoners was strictly forbidden, yet without saying a word, Edith’s serenity made a statement.
On the morning of August 9th, the prisoners were brought to barracks where they were ordered to remove their clothing, for the purpose of “a shower”. They had to walk naked for about a quarter of a mile, and were forced into a room that had tubes running along the ceiling. The doors were shut, and they were suffocated by prussic acid fumes.
The Meaning of Edith Stein’s Death
Edith had a great love for life. She was talented and loved dearly by friends and members of her community. In spite of this, she felt the desire to sacrifice her life for a greater purpose. She wrote the following note to her Mother Prioress on March 26, 1939,: “Dear Mother, please, will your Reverence allow me to offer myself to the Heart of Jesus as a sacrifice of propitiation for true peace: that the dominion of Antichrist may collapse, if possible, without a new world war?...I would like it granted this very day [Passion Sunday], because it is the twelfth hour.” She wished to make the offering that “very day”, most likely because it was the beginning of Holy Week.
The day of her birth in 1891 coincided with Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement], which is considered the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Of the various sacrificial offerings commemorating this feast during the era of Temple worship, the “Goat of Azazel” has a particular significance. The high priest would figuratively place all the sins of the people upon a goat, then the goat was led off to the desert to die. It was a symbol of atonement.
Christianity found this fulfilled in the Lamb of God, who “takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29) Could Edith’s willingness to die as a “sacrifice of propitiation”, find it’s ultimate meaning in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross? Understood in this sense, her death was not a purposeless defeat, but a means to imitate Christ and be united mystically in His work of redemption.
Edith Stein: The Life of a Philosopher and Carmelite, by Teresia Renata Posselt, O.C.D.
ICS Publications, WashingtonD.C., 2005.
Edith Stein: Philosopher and Mystic, by Josephine Koeppel, O.C.D.
The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1990
Novena to Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), http://www.hebrewcatholic.net/novena-preface/
© 2017 Bede