Edith Stein was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) on Yom Kippur, October 12, 1891. The last of eleven children of Siegfried and Auguste Stein, her devout Jewish parents celebrated the coincidence of her birth with this holiest of Jewish days with great joy. But her parents were unable to pass their faith on to their daughter who, by the age of fifteen, as she reveals in Life in a Jewish Family (1933–1935), had become a “Jewish atheist.” Later, during her formative years as a philosophy student, Stein found herself among other Jews who had converted to Christianity, some for career advancement, others, as in the case of Stein, for spiritual reasons.
Stein came to Catholicism by way of philosophy. Among the first women admitted to university studies in Germany, academic excellence led Stein to a career in philosophy, first at the University of Breslau, then to Göttingen University, where she studied under Edmund Husserl, who was then in the process of establishing a major twentieth-century philosophical movement—phenomenology. Stein received her doctorate with highest honors and became Husserl’s first assistant. During this period, she took the responsibility of editing Husserl’s manuscripts for Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to Phenomenological Philosophy (Ideas II) (1993), a work that was to have central importance after World War II when read by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others at the Husserl Archives in Leuven, Belgium, before its publication. It is in sections on the body in this work that contemporary existentialism finds early inspiration, and it is in this work that Husserl developed a philosophy of intersubjectivity and empathy that has much in common with Stein’s own work done under his guidance, On the Problem of Empathy (1916).
Stein’s youthful atheism weakened under the influence of others in the phenomenological movement of the time who had already converted to Christianity, including Husserl, Adolf Reinach, and Max Scheler. Despite success in the academic world, a dual track becomes noticeable in Stein’s thinking at this