Edith was born on Yom Kippur, October 12, 1891 in Breslau, Poland. She was the youngest of 11 children in a Jewish family. Her father ran a very successful timber industry. When she was only 2 years old, her father died. Her mother, a hard-working and strong willed woman, was left to raise her children and run the family business. Unfortunately, she did not raise her children in a living faith in God. When she 14 years old, Edith lost her belief in God. “I consciously decided, on my own volition, to give up praying.”
Edith was highly brilliant and highly intelligent which enabled her to easily pass college entrance tests. In 1911 she enrolled in the University of Breslau and studied German and history. But her passions were philosophy and women’s issues. Two years later, she transferred to Gottingen University and began her studies under Edmund Husserl, one of the leading philosophers of the time. She became one of his pupils, eventually a teaching assistant and her tutor for doctoral studies. She sought answers to her questions from her studies, but her encounter with Max Scheler turned her attention to the Catholic Church. She passed her degree on January 15 with distinction.
During World War I, she served in an Austrian field hospital looking after the sick in a typhus ward and working in an operating room. Edith saw many young men die because of the war. The hospital closed in 1916. She followed Husserl to Freiburg where she passed her doctorate summa cum laude. Her thesis was “The Problem of Empathy.”
The initial steps in her growth in the faith by Scheler were deepened when she went to the Frankfurt Cathedral. Edith saw a woman carrying a shopping bag enter the cathedral and kneel down to pray. “This was something totally new to me. In the synagogues and Protestant churches I had visited, people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was having an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot. “
A few months later, Edith went to visit the widow of a teaching assistant of Husserl. This woman, along with her husband, had converted to a Protestant faith. Edith was nervous of meeting this woman, but she was profoundly moved by this widow’s deep faith. “This was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power it impacts to those who bear it…it was the moment when my unbelief collapsed and Christ began to shine his light on me – Christ in the mystery of the Cross.”
In the summer of 1921, Edith spent a night reading the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. “When I had finished the book, I said to myself, this is truth.” On January 1, 1922, Edith was baptized and later confirmed. Soon after that, she wanted to enter the Carmelite convent in Cologne but her spiritual director asked her to wait. Edith began to teach and translate the letters and diaries of Cardinal Newman before he had become a Catholic as well as some of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. She began to combine scholarship with her Catholic faith. “If anyone comes to me, I want to lead them to Him.”
She finally entered Carmel on April 21, 1938 and was given the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Two year later, on April 21, Teresa made her first profession and on April 21, 1938, she professed her perpetual vows. During her time in Cologne, she continued to write. But that was to come to an end. On November 9, 1938, The Nazis in Germany revealed their evil with the burning of synagogues, the destruction of Jewish owned stores and physical violence of many Jewish people. This brutality led the prioress of the convent to smuggled Teresa Benedicta into Holland to the Carmel at Echt on December 31, 1938, along with her sister Rosa, who had converted to the Catholic faith.
On August 2, 1942, as an act of retaliation against the bishops in Holland who publicly condemned the Nazi movement, the Gestapo arrested Teresa Benedicta while she was in the chapel, along with her sister Rosa who was serving the Echt convent. Five days later, along with 987 Jewish people, they were placed on a train to Auschwitz. Sister Teresa Benedicta and Rosa were gassed on August 9. Teresa was 51 years old.
She was beatified in Cologne on August 7, 1987 by Pope St. John Paul li and canonized by him on October 11, 1998.
During the time immediately before and quite sometime after my conversion I…thought that 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 one 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.
From the writings of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.