Edith Stein's Humor and Compassion
by John Sullivan

Summer 1991, Vol.43 No.2, pp. 142-160

John Sullivan, OCD is currently provincial of the Washington Province of Discalced Carmelites. He obtained a doctoral degree in worship and sacramental theology from the Institut Catholique in 1973. He has been for the past several years English-language editor of the Collected Works of Edith Stein and of Carmelite Studies.

The life and writings of Edith Stein, philosopher and Carmelite nun, reveal a subtle sense of humor and exhibit a selfless spirit of compassion and concern for others.

MOST experts on Edith Stein would agree that all her professional activities, philosophizing and religious questing had a deeper understanding of the human spirit as their preeminent goal. Her own best summary of this preoccupation was to say, as she did in her autobiography, Life in a Jewish Family, that "the constitution of the human person was something personally close to my heart" (397). This made her someone who, in the words of the neo-scholastic philosopher Daniel Feuling, "had a yearning to attain to the deeper sense of our human being and existence that kept her constantly on the watch, both personally and as a scholar, for the great interconnections which permeate existence -- in men and women, in the world and in being itself" (162). The prospects and the projects of the human scene were what sustained her interest as she worked to increase human freedom around her.

Those familiar with her life and writings also recognize that she seldom spared herself in her "incessant search for the truth," as Pope John Paul II said in his homily for her beatification (300). They would agree that she demonstrated a great deal of earnest zeal, intellectual rigor as well as vigor, and unflagging seriousness in the task. Such traits are certainly admirable. Yet they could easily convey an image of Edith Stein as a "dull" girl, "all work and no play." At least one European Stein expert seems to suggest that the photos from a particular phase of her life betray a "melancholic" Edith.(1)

Can we uncover in Edith Stein, then, not only a sense of compassion but of humor as well? Or should we feel that, as a distinguished philosopher (and now Blessed of the Catholic Church), she harbored thoughts too deep and serious to allow any room for humor? Our response in this article can only be preliminary, especially since many of her works still remain unpublished. Still, we hope to provide evidence here for a positive answer to the first question, and a negative to the second; Edith Stein's life and writings do reveal a woman of humor and compassion. To show this, however, we need to begin with a working definition of humor.


Clearly, humor is more than mere joke-telling. Indeed, theories of humor are as varied as those who have proposed them, from the ancient Greeks down to Henri Bergson and contemporary authors. (2) Many definitions of the past, and much of what passes for comedy today, might seem to suggest that "the emotions discharged in laughter always contain an element of aggressiveness" and sometimes even of cruelty (Koestler 6). In these pages, however, we follow a more benign tradition, well expressed by Stephen Leacock in his article in Encyclopedia Britannica:

Humor may be defined as the sense within us which sets up a kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life, and the expression of that sense in art.... The element of kindliness is essential to humor: there must not only be perception of the peculiarities, the contrasts and the shortcomings which lend to any character or circumstance an incongruous aspect, but there must be a tolerance or acceptance of them. Where indignation is aroused the humorous conception is lost and amusement ends. (11:883)

In other words, authentic humor implies the ability to resonate with the pathos in Shakespeare's famous observation (on the lips of Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream): "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" (Act 3, scene 2, line 115). The Bard's advice to us is to take ourselves for what we are, not something greater than life; to take ourselves, rather, as a small piece of that baffling puzzle which will oftentimes lead us to smile at our inadequacies. Gales of laughter are not what we're expected to produce in others or induce in ourselves, but good, "kindly" admissions of the foolishness and incongruity we frequently cause and witness around us. That is what having a sense of humor involves.

A few scattered and unscientific examples tend to confirm this view. My copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare includes the word "fool" in its glossary and defines it as "a term of endearment or compassion"; true humor moves us to feel with (com + pati), and not just laugh at or about, others. TWA's April, 1989 Ambassador magazine conjures up this same connection between humor and compassion when it characterizes the works of Samuel Beckett as "tragicomic, absurd, haunting, bitterly misanthropic yet filled with compassion for the human condition." A saint, well before she was declared a saint, was overheard sighing to be spared the burden of non-humorous people: "God, deliver me from sour-faced saints." As many know , the source of that memorable one-liner was Teresa of Avila. And mention of a churchperson like St. Teresa reminds us of what Umberto Eco tried to illustrate in The Name of the Rose -- regardless of whether Aristotle's manuscript on comedy ever did exist (3)-- that true holiness actually springs to the defense of humor, and that only a basically unchristian attitude would consider it both unseemly and subversive.

The point, then, is this: Humor pervades the thoughts and emotions of any healthy human being; humor, in fact, characterizes us as humans and even distinguishes us from all the other species on earth. One should therefore expect numerous instances of humor in the writings of a philosopher of the human person like Edith Stein, and our examination of some of the places where she uses it will reassure us of how well she grasped its nature. In addition, since compassion is included in understanding of humor used here, the second part of this article will attempt to show its presence both in the freedom generating actions of her life and in passages from her writings.


Edith Stein's autobiographical Life in a Jewish Family offers ample material, and several stories in it will do justice both to Stein and to our topic. We begin with some vignettes from the days of her university studies. Two further passages from her doctoral dissertation in philosophy (completed and defended in 1916 at Freiburg-im-Breisgau, under the title of On the Problem of Empathy) will complement events described in that part of her autobiography.

1. TEXTS FROM Life in a Jewish Family

The opening chapter of Edith's autobiographical account (in which she presents the members of her family and relates what happened before she was born) shows her aunt by marriage, Mika, helping to write little plays for family "feasts." Edith, who wrote skits herself, says "the persons in these plays were portrayed with loving humor and keen insight" (35). The expression "loving humor" breathes through the texts to come, and Edith's qualifier "loving" deserves a place alongside the word "humor" wherever true humor is found.


Just as the very title of her autobiography bespeaks family life, so family members figure in our first two selections. A cousin is the protagonist of the first, and her description of his reaction to her talents gives us the chance to see what a well-rounded person Edith herself was at the age of twenty.

This time my cousin Erich was also at home. He was a year younger than I and had just begun the Oberprima. Now my successful Abitur was held up to him as a pattern: this was not at all to his liking. Once, thoroughly vexed because he had verified that I had read Part II of "Faust," he declared: 'People like you only have so much time to read because you're too lazy to take part in any sports!" [Erich either didn't know or had just conveniently forgotten she was an avid tennis player, as she noted earlier on in that same chapter.]

Otherwise, we got along fine together. One afternoon when I returned from somewhere with my aunt, he and another young man were practicing some dance steps to the music of a record-player. As soon as Erich saw me, he asked me whether I could dance. My aunt scolded him for his audacity; but I was both happy and ready to show how accomplished I was.

Thanks to Hans Biberstein [her tennis partner from earlier on!], I knew all the latest steps. Erich had to admit he was outclassed and remarked in sincere admiration: "A girl who's made her Abitur and been excused from the orals, who has read "Faust," and who can waltz around to the left, should be featured at the Hansa-Theater (the theater with the largest variety show in Chemnitz)! (182).

Here are familiar enough realities: school rivalry between young family members; their competitiveness abetted by the admiring approval of success from their elders; an attempt to take revenge by embarrassing the rival; and some prudish shock over youthful informality. (4) Edith adds just the right dose of irony: her interest and skill in both sports and dancing, and her deft closing of the trap Erich though he was setting. But the outcome provides a warm resolution as the cousin overdoes his admiration, even urging a vaudeville appearance on Edith!


The second story centers on Edith's dear mother, Auguste Courant Stein. One ought to preface the following narrative with a few background remarks on the importance of Frau Stein to the book of Edith's life.

By showing that Jews find the same pleasures in life as others, the same problems and pains, Edith intended her autobiographical account to be a refutation of the Nazi anti-semitic propaganda current in Germany in the 30s. She began drafting it, in fact, in 1933 when she found herself removed from her teaching job in Münster because of the discriminatory laws against Jews (23-24). To demonstrate the "ordinariness" of her own family life, she places her mother at the center of the book, borrowing some of her mother's recollections and even calling the first chapter "My Mother Remembers, 1815-1891" (24-25). She goes on to mention Frau Stein up to and including the last page of the last full chapter (the Life remained unfinished due to the arrest and subsequent murder of Edith by the Nazis) where she provides her daughter with night-time refreshments during her difficult university studies, leaving Edith only "after a good-night kiss." Father John Donohue, an editor of America, recognized the importance of this close relationship in an article that appeared only a month before the Vatican authorized Stein's beatification in 1987:

If Edith is beatified, her picture of Auguste Courant, by a divine and tender irony, is likely to rank first in the gallery of portraits drawn by saints of their mothers. It is more complete and memorable than the image of Monica in Augustine's Confessions or of Zelie Guérin in Thérèse of Lisieux's Story of a Soul. (9)

Now for the story about mother and daughter. The year was 1915 and World War I was raging. Soldiers were dying, and Edith, surrounded cozily by the books of her graduate studies, wanted to do her share and help her homeland. So, she volunteered to become a Red Cross nurse and go to a contagious disease hospital. She had to convince Mother Stein that her desire was a good idea:

I had heavy opposition from my mother. I did not even tell her it was a lazaretto [i.e., for those with contagious diseases.] She was well aware that no suggestion of hers that my life would be endangered could ever induce me to change my plans. So as an ultimate deterrent, she told me all the soldiers arrived from the front with clothes overrun with lice and that I could not possibly escape infestation. Naturally that was a scourge I dreaded - but if the people in the trenches all had to suffer from it why should I be better off than they? (A note: the delousing in Weisskirchen was organized so well that I was spared this ordeal. Occasionally I did find some of the little creatures on people's linens, indeed on washed pieces just taken out of closets.)

When this tactic failed, my mother declared with all the energy she could muster: "You will not go with my permission."

My reply was every bit as determined: "Then I must go without your permission."

My sisters were downright shocked at my harsh retort. My mother was totally unaccustomed to such opposition. True, Amo or Rosa may often have used harsher language with her. But that happened only in the heat of anger while they were beside themselves and was soon forgotten again. Now, however, granite was striking granite. My mother said no more and was very silent and depressed for several days, a mood which always affected the entire household. But when subsequently I began making my preparations, she, as a matter of course, undertook to provide the complete nurse's outfit called for. Frieda, who was the most knowledgeable about such things, had to make all the purchases and do all the sewing required. (Life 319)

Despite the apparently confrontational, almost distressing, character of this account, when read in context we soon recognize "the kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life" mentioned above. The humor is there, and intentionally so: a little bit to show the emancipation of Edith as she continues growing up (then at the hardly tender age of twenty-four!), a little to justify hope's triumph over the unrealized fears of her loving mother.

If we keep in mind that Edith is writing this scene nineteen years after the fact, we can appreciate how the seemingly sharp edge to the struggle of wills between mother and daughter would have already disappeared, nor was she trying to emphasize it. Rather, as she tells the story, Edith is already a Catholic, preparing to move out once again, this time to the cloistered existence of a Carmelite nun, a decision making the argument over volunteer service seem relatively minor by comparison. We can imagine Edith explaining:

True, nineteen years ago my mother was "unaccustomed to such opposition." But now, however, she has grown used to other acts of independence from me, and . . . she has always survived! Hadn't she already at that time, heard even 'harsher' language from my brother and sister? If we were both so vehement then, our exchange was ultimately to their benefit; so they could see the youngest of the seven surviving siblings assuming adulthood with a sense of initiative exactly like that of mother, who was forced to assume leadership of the family when poor father died unexpectedly. I use the image of "granite striking granite" to show how equally resolute we were then, but how resilient we subsequently turned out to be, with no real damage or hurt inflicted. True, mother reverted to silence and acted "depressed" for a few days, but then "as a matter of course" she resurfaced and arranged for my nurse's outfit! (Life, 394-95)

As the final touch, Edith caps off her affectionate account by letting us know -- with a twinkle in her eye -- that neither she nor Mother Stein actually had to fret over the practicalities involved with assembling the nurse's outfit. Her sister Frieda got stuck with all the purchasing and sewing, at her mother's behest, in the wake of the meeting of minds.

Granted, such a story may evoke a gentle smile rather than gales of laughter, but surely it does indicate that Edith Stein possessed the essential element of humor: a loving acceptance of the shortcomings and incongruities of events and individuals. In any case, Edith's work at the contagious disease hospital gave Frau Stein reason to be proud of her daughter, and the next selection comes from the chapter of her Life that describes her service there.


As she says, she left for the Red Cross work on April 7, 1915 and stayed at Mährisch-Weisskirchen in Moravia for about six months until a furlough and eventual release from service. Chapter 8 of her Life is a valuable historical document since there are so few surviving eyewitness accounts of what went on, in those "lazarettos," as they were called. In one way it seems strange, but in another it proves my point about the nature of humor, that perhaps the funniest description of the entire book is found in this chapter:

On one occasion the arrival of a fresh transport kept us busy until late in the evening getting the new arrivals properly adjusted in traction. The officer's room which so far had housed only two occupants was now filled to capacity. Going down the corridor very late, I encountered a most remarkable transport: a gigantic figure lay stark naked on the gurney; a rimless pence-nez perched on the sharply aquiline nose; the head was resting on a red silk pillow. A Polish cavalry-captain was being transferred from the operating room to the officers' room. He had refused to allow them to put a hospital gown on him but had positively insisted that he retain those two items.

. . . I was informed that the cavalry-captain required private nursing throughout the night.... He was wide awake and gave orders in ringing tones which prevented the other officers from sleeping. They were half amused, half despairing....

Repeatedly, my patient asked me to cool his hands and arms with water. Since I had no one else to care for during the night, I was able to perform for him any service he fancied. To be sure, when the other nurses arrived in the morning, I was free to leave to freshen up a bit. When I returned, I found everyone in an uproar. The badly wounded officer was a nobleman, the nephew of one of the government's ministers who had already inquired about his condition. One could not satisfy the patient. He made one impossible demand after another and filled everyone who approached him with mortal dread. It was time for one of the girls to bring him his breakfast. Not daring to do so, she asked me to take it for her. While she provided for the other officers, I went over to the fearsome one.

"Good morning, little sister," he called out to me. Evidently what he recalled of my services during the night was pleasant. After we had left the room, the maid said to me in respectful awe: "He likes you, Sister. He called you 'Little Sister'."

When I went back into the officers' room, a captain summoned me to his bedside. He had also come in only the night before. "Little Sister," he begged, "See to it that this fellow gets moved into another room. One hasn't got a moment's rest." (360-362)

Though her mother worried about lice, Edith had much different challenges to face. And quite evidently she relishes the chance to stress how humorous was the poor wounded man's insistence on "wearing" just the pence-nez set of glasses and keeping the red silk pillow. Her choice of words "uproar," "Immortal dread," "not daring," "the fearsome one" and "not a moment's rest" is a fine exercise in hyperbole to strengthen the tragicomic strain of her reporting. A little later in the chapter she lets us know that the Polish officer died of his wounds, so we'd be wrong to think she's painting the scene totally at his expense. Rather, she deftly plays up the incongruities and shortcomings shared among the staff as well -- nurses ("sisters" in continental usage, just as in England), aides and doctors alike.

This passage not only enables us to appreciate the self-sacrificing patriotism of its author; it also reassures readers of the basic realism which undergirds much of her philosophical and spiritual writings later on in her life. Some of them were written after she entered a Carmelite cloister, so one might be tempted to dismiss her reflections on life and death as so many pious abstractions. In Life, Edith notes that the sobering effects of her wartime service was evident to others in the following dialogue of a Christmastide dinner party:

So I was back in Gottingen after being away for nearly a year. As in former times, Liane Weigelt sat opposite me at the dinner table.

'You haven't changed a bit, Fräulein Stein," she remarked. Frau Gronerweg declared, "I don't agree. One can tell just by looking at her that Fräulein Stein has experienced the serious side of life. (376)

Yet however brief this stint in the wartime hospital, Edith looked long and compassionately into the depths of human suffering. The First World War gave her an understanding of death within life; the Second brought her own life to an untimely end: only fifty-one years old, at Auschwitz, with hundreds of other Catholic Jews, among them her sister Rosa.

2. TEXTS FROM On the Problem of Empathy

Two brief passages from her thesis, defended during the same war (WWI) less than a year after ending the Red Cross service, will fill out the picture, showing that a sense of humor was not foreign even to Stein's most serious philosophical endeavors. (5) The first comes from a section called "The Deceptions of Empathy," and alludes to an art form very dear to Edith, viz., classical music.

But as we said, this deception can only be removed again by empathy. If I empathize that the unmusical person has my enjoyment of a Beethoven symphony, this deception will disappear as soon as I look him in the face and see his expression of deadly boredom. (87)

The second is found in a section entitled "The Phenomenon of Expression," with a final line that suits the American scene fairly well.

... As is well known, we civilized people must "control" ourselves and hold back the bodily expression of our feelings. We are similarly restricted in our activities and thus in our volitions. There is, of course, still the loophole of "airing" one's wishes. The employee who is allowed neither to tell his superior by contemptuous looks he thinks him a scoundrel or a fool, nor decide to remove him, can still wish secretly that he would go to the devil. (52)

The contrast between controlled bodily expression of "civilized" people and what they're really thinking couldn't be more perfect, nor more timely today as we seek the greater psychic freedom that "being in touch with" our emotions provides. Once again, we sense Stein's ability to combine profound philosophical reflections on the human person with a light touch of humor.


Turning now to the theme of compassion, we find another facet of the same sympathetic view of reality that humor represents for Edith Stein. Certainly, "compassion" holds a venerable place in many spiritual traditions (e.g., Buddhism) and has become a predominant spiritual catchword of our time, as any glance at current religious literature confirms. (6) This increasing emphasis on compassion is a positive development, provided the term does not become emptied of all meaning through overuse. But we need not pause here to argue over definitions. For our purposes, it is enough to say that compassion itself and the ability to be compassionate are crucial to an understanding of the human person, which so fascinated and preoccupied Edith Stein. The human spirit, involved in so many instances of tragicomic happenings, reveals its truly human side in compassion or solidarity with/in suffering. The compassionate person is only too ready to identify with the pain of others as they go struggling along.

To grasp Edith's thought in this area we will return to the Life, but then pass on to the letters, since they fill out her autobiographical narrative, which breaks off abruptly at the year 1916. By including two selections from her correspondence we view Edith before World War I during the war, between world wars, and during World War II.


The first illustration of compassion brings us back to her cousin Erich and to his brother Walter. Just after the accolade she received for her ability to "waltz around to the left" from the former, she tells about the latter -- an apparent ne'er-do-well and failure in the family. Here is his story in Edith's own words:

His [i.e., Erich's] elder brother Walter had always given his parents cause to worry .... [He] was apprenticed to a respectable business firm as far away from home and from his old influences as possible. But neither there nor in a subsequent job did he last long, for soon he was deep in debt and mixed up in all kinds of shady deals. Ms father sent him to America, but before long he turned up again. When the war [WWI] started, he was dispatched to the front at once. A daredevil soldier, he was almost immediately home again with an Iron Cross and a serious injury to his jaw. The old way of life began again. My uncle finally had no alternative but to cut off all contact with him and to forbid him entry into his paternal home.... He finally married a Christian girl with a lower middle-class background. He lived in the crowded workers' apartment which belonged to his father-in-law, a respectable cabinet-maker. Walter's parents were not happy with his misalliance and continued to ignore him and his family. But it was a good marriage, and the young wife was inconsolable when he died after a very short illness. She was left with two small children. Ms parents went to the funeral. On the way to the grave, his daughter-in-law clung to Uncle's arm. When the rabbi had said the final prayers and the whole group of mourners turned to leave, the young woman knelt down at the grave and, in her grief, prayed the Lord's Prayer aloud. Naturally, that was something totally unheard of in a Jewish cemetery but, instead of being offended by it, all were deeply moved. (Life 183)

A masterful piece of writing, to say the least. Concise in setting out the personality traits of the persons involved, it quickly established a tension involving real opposition, resolved in a beautiful dénouement the reader would hardly have expected. There is drama in the ebb-and-flow of the cousin's activities: from the small victories to defeat, to serenity in married life (however humble the surroundings), on to the ultimate tragedy of dying soon into his marriage. Paralleling this are the ups and downs of his parents' reactions to his exploits, especially the alienating force of marriage to a non-Jew; then, the turn-around of interment in a Jewish cemetery after a Jewish burial service, crowned by yet another turn-around -- the Lord's Prayer recited aloud by the grief-stricken wife which led, not to consternation, but inclusion and acceptance by the blood relatives of her deceased husband. The simplicity of her spontaneous gesture, and the equally simple humanity of the Jewish mourners -- "deeply moved" as they all were -- have no need of further analysis; the compassion is evident. Still, before turning to the next selection, it is worth mentioning how poignantly ecumenical Edith Stein was in passing on this scene to us. She wasn't writing her autobiography to prove the strength of her own faith. She maintains a modest reserve regarding belief and unbelief in setting out her story. Intensely aware from her own personal experience of what it meant to live without any faith at all, she is circumspect in examining the usages of either Judaism or Christianity and avoids criticism of either tepidity or overzealousness in others. Consequently, this moment of prayer at the cemetery acquires a special cogency that favors, all the more, inter-religious openness, mutual assistance and respect.


The next text describes an act of compassion for a close friend. Near the time of Stein's doctoral exams Erika Goth came to Freiburg for a little visit, thus offering Edith an excuse to take a break from all her studies. Edith never needed much of an excuse to leave on excursions into the mountains, so she gladly complied with the friend's stratagem (Life 120-134, 390). This was during wartime, and her narrative provides an insight into the psychological ravages of hostilities on the people left behind. We pick up the story in Freiburg before they leave for their trip:

But we came away with more than memories of happy outings for impressions of a more serious nature were made, also [in Freiburg]. The first or second night after Erika's arrival there, we were awakened by an air raid. I was accustomed to that by this time and made little of it. Erika slept in another room; her bed was against the wall adjoining the room occupied by the landlady's elderly in-laws. During the night, suddenly, the man knocked at my door and told me in his Baden dialect that my companion was weeping. I dressed immediately and went over to her. She was, indeed, shedding tears but not for herself. She had been told that from Freiburg one could hear the artillery fire from the Vosges Mountains and her brother Hans, a lieutenant, was stationed there.

Now she heard shells exploding and said, "If it sounds so terrible here, what a hell it must be there!"

I knelt beside her bed and comforted her. What we were hearing were the anti-aircraft guns from the Schlossberg which protected the entire city. All one could hear from the Vosges mountains was a very dull rumbling. Thereupon the tears stopped at once. Erika was completely comforted. She even noticed the dress I had thrown on so rapidly.

'You have found the style that suits you," she said. (407)

Distress over the danger, aggravated by anxiety for a loved one placed in similar or even greater peril -- that was what Edith discovered when she found Erika crying, "but not for herself." She quickly realized that she in turn must sympathize with her friend. A nice twist to the story comes from the way she relied on her knowledge of her surroundings to apply a factual explanation to her comforting gesture: she didn't offer hollow platitudes, but provided a solid reason for hope instead. Interesting too, the way her realism brought Erika back to focus on their immediate surroundings and to notice the dress Edith was wearing. As a result, Edith's intervention ends up earning her a compliment for her sartorial sensitivity -- a story with a happy ending (and perhaps a touch of humor) after all!


The next story's focus shifts to another setting in which Edith had to watch what she wore because of a most discerning audience, i.e., a class of young women before whom she stood as teacher. Due to discrimination against women in German universities, she was unable to obtain a teaching appointment commensurate with the academic achievement of her summa cum laude thesis under Husserl. She served for a time as his assistant, but was denied placement on the faculty. (7) Her conversion to Catholicism in 1921 brought with it a desire to form the hearts as well as the minds of young women; so she became an instructor at the teacher's college of the Dominican Sisters of St. Magdalen in Speyer. Teaching young laywomen as a laywoman herself (though soon enough a most dedicated Catholic woman with private vows), she was well attuned to the life problem of her students. Many hours of counseling troubled individuals led her to write these golden lines that any teacher would be happy to own:

The most important thing is that the teachers should really have Christ's spirit in themselves and really embody it in their lives. But it is also their duty to know the life into which the children are going. Otherwise there is a great danger that the girls will say to themselves: "The Sisters have no idea of what the world is like, they couldn't prepare us for the problems which we now have to solve" -- and that then the whole thing will be thrown overboard as useless.... You have the personal advantage that you did not enter too early and were in the Youth Movement. This means that approaches are open to you which others miss. But also you must keep your feelings ever open. The younger generation of today has passed through so many crises that they cannot understand us any more. But we must try to understand them, and then perhaps we shall be able to help them a little. (8)

Stein wrote this letter in what we call "the Year of Our Lord 1932," but for the young German women of whom she speaks it was one of those years "between-the-wars," when Germany lurched back and forth under the burden of the social and political upheaval that eventually brought the Nazis to power. To invoke the phrase coined by W.H. Auden (who was staying in Germany at about this time) to describe our century, it was truly an "Age of Anxiety." Edith was taking the proper measure of the raw material fed into her classroom when she claimed on their behalf the presence of "problems which we now have to solve." Every generation has shifting matrices for its growth pains, only the perceptive educators like Edith Stein have both the insight and the courage to declare candidly what they are. And yet, regardless of the shifts, the merit of Edith's words are that they recognize what used to be called a "generation gap," and that compassion requires of us extra efforts to ease communication, to take the initiative toward the alienated.


The final quotation from her writings is from the next-to-last written communication she had with anyone on earth. Arrested on August 2,1942 by the Gestapo, she died one week later not very far from her home city of Breslau in the Auschwitz extermination camp. In that last week of her life she was pushed through the infernal network of Hitler's "final solution," thus visiting two intermediate transit camps in Holland, first Amersfoort, then Westerbork In Westerbork her stay coincided with the tenure of Etty Hillesum, the Dutch Jewish woman who has left behind a diary and some Letters from Westerbork that have made her a subject of recent discussion in some Christian circles. (9) Hillesum devotes a lot of space in her writings (published posthumously because she too was killed by the Nazis) to the deep sense of despair which overcame women with children in the camp.(10) Understandably, the children were neglected, and an eyewitness account informs us that Edith Stein did much to look after them. Julius Marcan, a survivor, testified that:

It was Edith Stein's complete calm and self-possession that marked her out from the rest of the prisoners ... Many of the mothers were on the brink of insanity and had sat moaning for days, without giving any thought to their children. Edith Stein immediately set about taking care of these little ones. She washed them, combed their hair and tried to make sure they were fed and cared for. (Herbstrith 105)

From Westerbork Edith was able to send back a compelling message to the nuns at her monastery in Echt:

... we place our trust in your prayers. There are so many persons here in need of a little comfort, and they expect it from the sisters. (Letter 342 to Mother Ambrosia A. Engleman, 8 August 1912)

This time, the term "sisters" refers to the religious nuns and not nursing personnel, as during her volunteer service in World War I. Edith had no medications to dispense, nor could she deal with the other detainees from a nurse's position of authority. She had only herself to give: her attentiveness, the time she took away from her own worries, and her sense of religious hope. And she gave all that she had, because she was fully present with, present to the others, and she was willing to do as much as she could to share their burden of suffering so as to lighten the load. The freeing effects of her compassionate "Comfort" did not go unnoticed. Mr. Wielek, a Dutch official who spoke with her in Westerbork left a description which can serve as an eloquent epilogue to what she wrote, said and did to add to this poor world's reserve of humor and compassion:

I knew: here is someone truly great.

For a couple of days she lived in that hellhole, walking, talking and praying ... like a saint. And she really was one. That is the only fitting way to describe this middle-aged woman who struck everyone as so young, who was so whole and honest and genuine.

At one point she said to me, "I never knew people could actually be like this ... and I honestly had no idea of how my brothers and sisters were being made to suffer ... I pray for them continually."

. . . then I saw her go off to the train with her sister [Rosa], praying as she went, and smiling the smile of unbroken resolve that accompanied her to Auschwitz. (Herbstrith 107-108)


1. Romaeus Leuven, Edith Stein: Mijn Weg naar de Waarheid (Druten: "De Maas & Waler," 1980), 121. But see, on the other hand, the testimonies gathered by Waltraud Herbstrith, chap. 4 "Die Freunde im Leben Edith Steins," Edith Stein --- Versöhnerin zwischen Juden und Christen (Leutesdorf; Johannes Verlag, 1987), 23-49; and Stein's own long reflection on joy in Science of the Cross, trans. Hilda Graef (Chicago, IL: H. Regnery Co., 1961), 65-81.

2. Among philosophers, Aristotle In the Poetics lists the laughable as a subdivision of the ugly, while Thomas Hobbes defines "the passion of laughter" as "nothing else but sudden glory arising from a sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly" (Leviathan, 1651), and Immanuel Kant speaks of "the sudden transformation of ten expectation into nothing." See also D.H. Munro, "Humor," in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1967), 4:90-93; idem, Argument of Laughter (Cambridge, 1951); Henri Bergson, Laughter, trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (London: 1911); Arthur Koestler, "Humor and Wit," in The New Encyclopedia Brittanica, 15th ed. (Chicago: Helen Hemingway Benton, 1974), Macropaedia 9:5-11.

3. See Curt Hohoff, "Umberto Eco: Author of the Postmodern," : Communio 15 (Summer, 1988): 255.

4. In Edith's time, the Oberprima was the educational phase just prior to university-level studies, and the Arbitur was the final examination ("with written and oral portions") required before entering the university; see Life, 470-473.

5. See Edith Stein, On the Problem of Empathy, trans. Waltraut Stein, 3rd rev. ed. (Washington: ICS Publications, 1989). It would require too much space here to discuss Stein's contribution to phenomenology in her doctoral dissertation. An introduction to her philosophical thought will soon be published by Sister M. Catherine Baseheart of Spaulding University in Louisville, KY. The projected title for Baseheart's book is Person in the World: Introduction to the Philosophy of Edith Stein. There is also a licentiate thesis in spirituality written about her work on empathy by an English Discalced Carmelite; see John Hughes, "Edith Stein's Doctoral Thesis on Empathy and the Philosophical Climate from which it Emerged," Teresianum 36 (1985): 455-484.

6. Some earnest attempts to mine the notion of compassion come to us from Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979); Monika Hellwig, Jesus, the Compassion of God (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1983); and Joan Puls, A Spirituality of Compassion (Mystic, CT: TwentyThird Publication, 1988).

7. See Waltraud Herbstrith, Edith Stein: A Biography, trans. Bernard Bonowitz (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 28; Amata Neyer, "Trennung von Professor Husserl," in Edith Stein (Cologne: Stadt Köln, 1987), 42-43; and Mary Catherine Baseheart, "Edith Stein's Philosophy of Woman and Women's Education," Hypatia 4 (Spring, 1989):122.

8. Letter 123, Stein to Sister Callista Kopf, 20 Oct 1932, in Selbstbildnes in Briefen,Erster Teil 1916-1934 (Freiburg: Herder, 1076), 119-120.

9. Michael Downey, "Etty Hillesum and God," Spirituality Today 40 (Spring, 1988):18-35.

10. See Etty Hillesum, Letters from Westerbork, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), passim for the children and 28-30 for a haunting account of the arrival at camp of Edith Stein's group of Catholic Jewish detainees.


Feuling, Daniel, Edith Stein: Die Frau in Ehe und Beruf. Bildungsfragen Heute. Freiburg: Herder, 1963.

Leacock, Stephen. Humour: Its Theory and Techniques. London: 1935.

Pope John Paul II. "Homily at the Beatification of Edith Stein," Carmelite Studies 4 (1987): 300.

Stein, Edith. Life in a Jewish Family. Translated by Josephine Koeppel, Collected Works of Edith Stein, vol. 1. Washington: ICS Publications, 1986.