… and the footsteps of a learned and brave young woman
Edith Stein house
On Oct 12, 1891, a girl was born to a Wroclawian Jewish family who lived in Nadodrze, the quarter north of river Odra. She was the 11th child born to the merchant Siegfried Stein and his wife Augusta. The parents named their daughter Edith. Nobody would have guessed then that she would become one of the best-known female martyrs and saints of the 20th century.
Edith’s father had died when she was one year old. Her mother continued the business and saw to it that her intelligent, gifted daughter got a good education.
The family was orthodox Jewish and observant. (Both parents are buried in Wrocław’s jewish cemetery, by the way.) Young Edith dissociated herself more and more from her mother’s faith, though, until at some point she actually considered herself an atheist.
After finishing high school in 1911, Edith studied letters at the universities of Breslau, Göttingen and Freiburg and finally wrote a doctoral thesis in philosophy. As a woman, she was denied a further career at university, though. Her habilitation thesis was rejected.
The turning point in her life came when she read the writings by Saint Teresa of Avila, the great Spanish mystic of the 16th century. Edith converted to the Roman Catholic faith. In 1922 she was baptized in Bad Bergzabern in Palatine. For some years she worked as a teacher and held public lectures on the rights of women and education of girls. In 1933, feeling the rising pressure under the Nazi regime, she entered the Carmelite order as Sister Teresia Benedicta a Cruce. Despite her conversion she kept seeing herself as a member of the Jewish people. In 1942 Edith and her sister Rosa, who had also converted and joined the Carmelites, were deported to Auschwitz and murdered in the gas chambers. Pope John Paul II canonized her in 1998.
Since Nadodrze was one of the areas in the city that were only partly destroyed in World War II, we can still walk the streets that little Edith must have roamed. The quarter is a mix of 19th century townhouses and (very ugly) apartment blocks from the communist era.
The house where the family lived is still standing. The current address is ul. Nowowiejskiej 38. The house is now used as a centre of studies and culture. A memorial plaque on the wall as well as a stumbling stone in the pavement commemorates her.
Church of St Michael
The parish church of St Michael is located just a short walk from the family home. Surely young Edith has walked around here, probably even through the park that surrounds it. We do not know whether she had had contacts with the catholic faith already in her youth, perhaps through friends. It is possible that she may have poked her nose into the huge neogothic building, maybe out of curiosity – but we do not know. The parish community certainly likes to imagine this idea. A stone plate by the front door of the church claims that Edith had prayed here in the years 1922-1933. In those years Edith was not living in Breslau any more, though, so she could only have come to the church during occasional family visits.
Underneath the left steeple a modern chapel dedicated to Saint Edith Stein has been established. It has been consecrated on Edith’s 100th birthday on Oct 12, 1991. The chapel owns relics from Edith Stein. The altar contains a symbolic handful of ashes from Auschwitz victims.
The park behind the church and the street along its edge have been named after Saint Edith Stein. Her memory is well taken care of in this quarter around her childhood home.
Saint Edith Stein chapel in St Michael, and the inscription
In the park around the church