Edith Stein (1891-1942) was a Jewish philosopher who came to understand the limits of pure intellect, and embraced Catholicism. Later she perished in Auschwitz.
Her life stands in contrast to that of Martin Heidegger, briefly her associate in philosophy, whose equal but untrammelled brilliance led him to conclude that “the Führer, and he alone, is the present and future law of Germany”.
The youngest of 11 children, four of whom died in infancy, Edith Stein was born in Germany at Breslau (now Wrocław, in Poland).
Her father, a lumber merchant, died when she was one, so that her mother, a strict Jew, struggled to maintain the business and bring up the children.
Extraordinarily precocious, Edith discovered no one at school to equal her intellectually. By 13 she had rejected her mother’s faith and declared herself an atheist.
At Breslau university she became fascinated by Edmund Husserl’s writings on consciousness, and went to study under him at Göttingen. There, however, Edith Stein encountered another philosopher, Adolf Reinach, who introduced her to Thomas Aquinas. After Reinach was killed in battle in 1917, she was profoundly impressed by the fortitude of his wife Anna, who had converted to Catholicism.
“It was then,” Edith Stein wrote, “that I first encountered the Cross, and the divine strength it inspires in those who bear it.”
In 1921 her reading of St Teresa of Avila’s autobiography proved the clinching experience. On New Year’s Day 1922 she was received into the Church.
For the next 10 years Edith Stein taught at a Dominican school in Speyer. To the children she seemed forbidding: an inspector reported that she knew much, but could not teach.
In her spare time she continued with her philosophical writings and in 1931 briefly secured a post as a lecturer in Münster. But those were not propitious times in Germany either for either Jews or academics.
Discerning the hand of Providence in the rebuffs to her career, in 1933 Edith Stein entered the Carmelite monastery in Cologne as Sister Teresa Benedicta.
Slow and awkward in mastering practical tasks, she accepted her deficiencies with humility. After taking her final vows in 1938 she was encouraged to resume her philosophical writings.
At the end of that year, to escape the Nazis, Edith Stein was smuggled out of Cologne to the Carmel at Echt in Holland. But when Germany overran Holland in 1940 she disdained any further flight.
Seized by the Gestapo in August 1941 she was at first imprisoned in a camp at Westerbrook, where this formerly remote academic excelled in the care of desperate mothers and children.
Edith Stein was murdered at Auschwitz on August 9 1942. “Sufferings endured with the Lord,” she believed, “are his sufferings, and bear great fruit in his work of redemption.”