1. Poe-Greskamp, Marlene

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My introduction to Edith Stein came in 1998 from writings in a newspaper article about her canonization as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Stein was a philosopher, brilliant prolific writer, and nurse who died a martyr in 1942 at the hand of the Nazis for her Jewish people and her Christian faith. Although primarily known for her work in philosophy, Stein is an inspiration to nurses, especially nurse academics. This extraordinary woman's story is remarkable given her profound accomplishments in a male-dominated world that despised Jews.

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Edith Teresa Hedwig Stein was born in Breslau, Germany (now part of Poland) on October 12, 1891, the youngest of 11 children in a Jewish family. Her father owned a lumber business in Lubinitz; her mother assisted with the family business and took care of the children (Herbstrith, 1985). Edith's father died when she was 2 leaving her mother to raise and support the family.


Edith's family considered her an obstinate, strong-willed, and independent child. She decided at age of 13 she neither wanted to go to school nor practice her faith, and went to Hamburg to stay with an older sister for a year (Herbstrith, 1985, p. 26). She later graduated high school and spent four semesters at Breslau University (Hill, 2000, p. 31). A declared atheist, Stein began to have an interest in philosophy and phenomenology, which she thought would help her find the truth of human existence. She had just begun to read some of the writings of Edmund Husserl, the famous philosopher and "father of phenomenology," when she was invited to Gottingen to finish her collegiate education under Husserl. Edith became one of Husserl's outstanding students. After completing her doctorate she was Husserl's assistant for a year and a half (Bordeaux, 1959).


According to Stein's autobiography, Life in a Jewish Family (Stein, Gelber, & Leuven, 1986), she was taking a philosophy class in the summer of 1914 and decided to enroll in a nursing course at All Saints Hospital in Breslau. At Breslau, she received training in caring for patients with contagious diseases, bandaging, and giving injections (Stein et al., p. 298). Edith interrupted her graduate studies in 1915 to volunteer as a nurse with the Red Cross at the hospital for contagious diseases, Mahrisch-Weisskirchen Lazaretto, in Austria. She worked on the typhoid fever unit caring for soldiers from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germans, Slovaks, Poles, Russians, Turks, Czechs, Italians, and Rumanians, many of whom died.


Stein was one of the first women in Germany to earn a PhD, completing her doctorate in philosophy in 1917. Husserl guided her research "On the Problem of Empathy," which was influenced by her nursing experiences (Stein, 1989). Stein was a champion for women and a leader in the Catholic feminist movement between World Wars I and II, lecturing and writing about fulfilling roles for women in all walks of life (Stein, 1959).


God was working in Stein's life, speaking to her in various ways. In the fall of 1921, she read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila and converted to Catholicism. She was baptized in 1922. In the fall of 1923, Stein accepted a teaching position at St. Magdelina's College in Speyer and taught there until 1931. In 1932, Edith left Speyer to lecture at the German Institute for Educational Theory in Munster. But this prestigious position only lasted 1 year because of Hitler's Aryan Laws to preserve a pure race. As a Jew, Stein lost her university position in 1933. She had wanted to join the Carmelite Order of Sisters earlier but was denied. With growing pressure on the Jews, Stein was allowed to join the order at Cologne on October 13, 1933 where she became Sr. Teresa Benedicta a Cruce (Blessed by the Cross). She completed her vows in 1938 (Herbstrith, 1985).


On December 31, 1938, Sr. Teresa Benedicta secretly moved to a Carmel in Echt, Holland, to protect the Cologne Carmel from further persecution by the Nazi regime. Later, the same brutal practices initiated in Germany began against the Dutch Jews in Holland. On August 2, 1942, Sr. Teresa was arrested in the Echt Carmel chapel at about 5 in the evening. The story of her last days is gripping.

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Sr. Teresa was placed on a train with other Jewish converts including men, women, and children. They headed east to their final destination at Auschwitz/Birkekaw. This was a time when Sr. Teresa again used her nursing. Pera (1991) describes how she took care of the children on the train to Auschwitz/Birkekaw. Witnesses talked about Edith's calmness and helpfulness on the train (Mosley, 2004). On August 9, 1942, the train arrived at Auschwitz/Birkekaw and all prisoners aboard were taken directly to the gas chambers and killed. Stein was 52 years of age. Her prisoner number was 44974 and her death was documented by the official Dutch Gazette as deported from Holland on August 7, 1942 (Herbstrith, 1985, p. 190; Sullivan, 2002).


Stein was well known in academia because of her experience, research, and writings in psychology, phenomenology, spirituality, and education (Stein, 2000). She had a wonderful relationship with her students as evidenced by many endearing comments from her students in writings about her life and characteristics as a teacher. She discovered the importance of serving God in academia, writing,


During the time immediately before and quite some time after my conversion I ... thought leading a religious life meant giving up all earthly things and having one's mind fixed on divine things only. Gradually, however, I learnt that other things are expected of us in this world... I even believe that the deeper someone is drawn to God, the more he has to "get beyond himself" in this sense, that is, go into the world and carry divine life into it... [One can] pursue scholarship as a service to God... It was not until I had understood this that I seriously began to approach academic work again. (Vatican: The Holy See, n.d.)


As an educator, Edith Stein inspires me. There is spirituality in the educator/student relationship. My perception is that educators should concentrate on the affective domain as well as the other domains of learning in socializing students. Stein stated the same ideas. Sometimes being an educator involves making the best of the results of the choices of others. If we do the best that we possibly can each day with our students they will benefit greatly and so will we as educators. Our students will remember us with positive thoughts. Stein believed there is need for an educator to utilize reflection and contemplation in their daily work if they are going to enhance the life of their students. Contact with students should exemplify a positive regard and mutual respect that has been documented as so important for teaching students. She believed the student/teacher relationship should help the student develop talent and find his or her own method of making a contribution (Maskulak, 2012).


Edith Stein is a wonderful role model for nursing academics and all human beings for living a productive and faith-based life. Stein's final acts were to bring humanity and compassion to those around her. She is an amazing example to those who work in difficulty today.


Bordeaux H. (1959). Edith Stein, Thoughts on her life and times. Milwaukee, WI: Bruce. [Context Link]


Herbstrith. (1985). Edith Stein: A biography (trans. Fr. Bernard Bonowitz), San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row. [Context Link]


Hill M. L. (2000). Saint Edith Stein: Blessed by the Cross. Boston, MA: Pauline. [Context Link]


Maskulak M. (2012). Edith Stein, A proponent of human community and a voice for social change. Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, 15(2), 62-81. [Context Link]


Mosley J. (2004). Edith Stein; Woman of prayer. Leominster, UK: Gracewing. [Context Link]


Pera S.A. (1991). Nursing and martyrdom in new world regions and Europe in the last Century-Part 3, Curationis, 4(14), 14-16. [Context Link]


Stein E. T. (1959). Essays on woman. Washington, DC: I.C.S. [Context Link]


Stein E. T. (1989). On the problem of empathy. Washington, DC: I.C.S. Publishers. [Context Link]


Stein E. T. (2000). Philosophy of psychology and the humanities. Washington, DC: I.C.S. [Context Link]


Stein E. T., Gelber L., Leuven R. (1986). Life in a Jewish family. Washington, DC: I.C.S. [Context Link]


Sullivan J. (2002). Edith Stein: The essential writings. New York, NY: Orbis. [Context Link]


Vatican: The Holy See. (n.d.). Teresa Benedict a of the Cross Edith Stein (1891-1942) nun, Discalced Carmelite, martyr. Retrieved from