Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Germany in 1891, Edith Stein turned toward Christianity at age 30, finding her calling as a Catholic nun. In a tragic twist on the tale of Queen Esther, Stein urged Pope Pius XI to intervene with Hitler on behalf of the Jews, but was herself ultimately deported to Auschwitz by the Nazis, where she died at age 50 in 1942.
She was named a patron saint of Europe by Pope John Paul II in 1998.
Impactful and controversial, Stein is the subject of a new historical dramatic film, “A Rose in Winter,” directed by Joshua Sinclair. The film screened at the Boca Raton Jewish Film Festival in March. It was also shown at last year’s Jerusalem International Film Festival, and at the UN with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres attending.
The genesis for “A Rose in Winter” came when Sinclair and a composer friend were discussing the current problem of hatred in the world.
“One thing interested me above all,” Sinclair recently told The Times of Israel. “The problem of bigotry, and racism, and anti-Semitism. It’s our duty to do something to combat that, reach millions of people.”
Stein’s story drew particular interest from the filmmaker because he was drawn to a character who embodies both Christianity and Judaism.
For Stein, Sinclair cast Bosnian actress Zana Marjanovic, whose films include “In the Land of Blood and Honey” with Angelina Jolie in 2011. He calls Marjanovic perfect for the role, noting that she herself lived through war in Bosnia. She fled to the United States before returning to her homeland, where she is now a member of its parliament.
The filmmaker is also a medical doctor and his various projects have seen collaborations with personages ranging from Mother Teresa to David Bowie. His work includes the 1986 TV miniseries “Shaka Zulu” about the renowned 19th-century South African leader; and the 2007 German-Jewish historical crime drama “Jump!”
For “A Rose in Winter,” Sinclair researched and wrote a screenplay that is not strictly biographical, but he calls it “accurate in many ways.” He tells the story through a fictional character he created — New York Times reporter Michael Praeger, played by British actor Christian Cooke. The story begins in 1962, two decades after Stein’s death, when Michael receives a folder of information on her and a suggestion that her life would make a good story.
Scholars say that Stein lived a life of achievement, and left a complex legacy.
“She was an incredibly accomplished person, an incredibly moral person, who found strength through Catholicism,” said Rabbi Alan Brill, the Cooperman-Ross Endowed Chair for Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University. “Therefore, [although] from a Catholic point of view she was seen as spiritually Jewish, from a Jewish point of view we could not see [Stein] as Jewish.”
“Certainly, the decision to canonize her was controversial,” said Adam Gregerman, assistant director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at St. Joseph’s University, “principally because she died as a Jew. She died for her Jewishness. She had converted to Catholicism and has been deemed a Christian martyr. There’s a real tension between the two sides of her religious identity.”
Gregerman’s colleague Philip Cunningham, director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations, recognizes the controversy. Yet he said that Stein’s canonization reflected the Vatican’s 1990s-era “coming to grips with the reality of the Shoah, because John Paul lived through it.”
Cunningham noted that all of John Paul’s Jewish friends except one died in the Holocaust.
“I would say a sincere sentiment came through in his homily on Edith Stein’s canonization, that Jews killed by the Nazis should be honored and revered in the Catholic Church,” Cunningham said. “I think Edith Stein was a way of trying to realize that veneration.”
“The highest recognition the Catholic Church can give someone with heroic virtues is to canonize them, declare them to be with God, to be saints,” Cunningham said.
However, he added, because of church ritual and procedure, “this could only be extended to Catholics.” Finding a candidate for sainthood who was “Jewish, or was of Jewish ethnicity, built a connection to all the victims of the Nazis,” he said.
Sinclair addresses this universalism in the film when Stein tells her friend Anna Reichart, “I never stopped being a Jew.” In another scene, before undergoing interrogation by the Gestapo, Stein looks at a cross on the wall and recites the Psalm of David in Hebrew.
“It’s important to show that right to the very end, she was a Jew,” Sinclair said. “Her religious language, divine language, was Hebrew. She dies as both a Christian and a Jew.”
The roots of Edith Stein’s Catholic conversion
Born on Yom Kippur in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), Stein “grew up in a family that was very Orthodox Jewish,” Sinclair said. “Along the way, she started to ask a lot of questions. It was not that she believed that God did not exist, but that God did not matter that much.”
Although Sinclair disagrees with characterizations of her as an atheist growing up, he said that because of the death of her father Siegfried, “she let go of God for a while, or her link with God.”
Stein found solace in academics — studying with prominent philosopher Edmund Husserl, writing a dissertation on empathy and becoming a noted scholar.
She also advocated for women’s rights and during World War I she served as a Red Cross nurse. In the film, she meets army lieutenant Lipps in the trenches of France.
“With Hans, I created more of a love story than the historical record would allow, perhaps,” Sinclair said. “There are places where people say of her that she had this relationship, kind of a feeling of closeness to Hans Lipps, and if she had married anyone it would have been him.”
Yet Lipps recognizes he cannot compete with Stein’s interest in God — especially after she researched 16th-century Spanish mystic St. Teresa of Avila.
“I show what it is in Teresa of Avila that impacted Edith Stein,” Sinclair said, noting that Teresa’s writings encouraged Stein to see prayer as “an intimate conversation with someone you know loves you.”
Teresa, who reportedly came from a converso background, influenced Stein’s turn toward Christian spiritual life. Stein’s decision caused hurt in her family.
Sinclair said there is historical evidence that Edith’s mother Auguste never internalized the fact Edith would truly become a Christian.
How the Holocaust turned Stein into a nun
Sinclair’s film has Auguste asking Edith, “This Christian you want to be, what you want to join, has done so many terrible things to the Jewish people, how can you be one?” Auguste also mentions a menacing, little-known politician named Adolf Hitler.
“Hitler and his thugs gave the impression that what they were doing was Christian,” Sinclair said. “Much of what Hitler believed was pagan… he tried to outlaw Christianity in various parts of Germany.”
Yet Sinclair said that “for Edith’s mother and many, many Jews in Germany at the time, it appeared the National Socialists were a Christian movement, of course reinforced by the fact that various bishops and other members of the Catholic and Evangelical church in Germany rubbed shoulders with Hitler. It was a time of very little courage in the Catholic and Christian community.”
The film contrasts this with Stein’s brave letter to Pius XI in 1933. She identified herself as “a child of the Jewish people who, by the grace of God, for the past 11 years has also been a child of the Catholic Church.”
“We all, who are faithful children of the Church and who see the conditions in Germany with open eyes, fear the worst for the prestige of the Church, if the silence continues any longer,” Stein wrote.
Scholar Gregerman calls the letter “quite heartbreaking” and “highly prescient.”
“You read with hindsight,” his colleague Cunningham agrees. “We know what happened subsequently. Her fears were all too accurate.”
Cunningham noted that “she was not the only one writing and asking for papal reaction or engagement with what the Nazis were doing … I think more is going to be made clear when the Vatican archives open [in] less than one year.” He said, “I don’t think she was unique, but she spoke from a unique position given her Jewish heritage.”
According to the film, Hitler’s rise prompted Stein to become a Discalced Carmelite nun in 1934 (the same order to which Teresa of Avila had belonged; Stein took the name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross).
“She thought she would be useful to the Jewish people if she was inside the church, speaking from within,” Sinclair said.
Instead, in 1938, fearing for her safety, the church transferred her from Cologne to a convent in Echt, Holland.
“Even in Catholic Cologne, the Nazis reigned supreme,” said Thomas Pegelow Kaplan, the director of the Center for Judaic, Holocaust, and Peace Studies at Appalachian State University. “The Carmelite order was under attack. In 1938, nobody could foresee that the Nazis would overrun the Netherlands. It seemed safe. Obviously not.”
A world gone mad
During World War II, the Nazis occupied the Netherlands under Austrian-born Reichskommissar Arthur Seyss-Inquart. Seventy percent of Dutch Jews died in the Holocaust.
In 1942, after members of the Dutch clergy criticized Hitler, “the first thing he did was take the so-called converted Jews — nuns, priors, priests [of Jewish descent] — and ship them to Auschwitz,” Sinclair said.
The Nazis took Stein into captivity — first at the Westerbork concentration camp, then to Auschwitz. Her sister Rosa, who had also become a Christian and was working at the Echt convent, joined Edith at Auschwitz and died with her.
Sinclair hopes audiences will make connections with Stein’s courage in the midst of the madness that engulfed her world.
“Either we allow it to happen or try to stop it as best we can, despite often finding ourselves alone,” Sinclair said.