Edith Stein is a heart-wrenching play set in WWII Germany. The story follows the exploits of a Jewish convert to Christianity, Edith Stein, as told by her aged Prioress to a no-nonsense Jewish representative from the International Holocaust Committee named Dr. Weismann. Edith believes she is chosen by God to intercede for her people, much like the Esther of the Bible, and joins the Convent of the Carmelite Sisters, near Auschwitz. However, her greatest trial is found in the person of Karl Heinz, representative of the Ministry of Church Affairs. His demand is simple: Edith must leave the convent with him, or he will bring it crashing down around her ears.
Throughout Karl and Edith’s cat-and-mouse relationship, we are introduced to the major theme of the play: identity. On the surface, Karl and Edith seem to share nothing in common. However, upon closer examination, we come to realize that they share the same problem at the source.
Karl Heinz is a recent inductee to the Ministry of Church Affairs, a former jailbird who has swallowed the notion of German supremacy hook, line, and sinker. He believes that he has the natural right to power, and this belief affects everything he does. Having obtained that power from his SS superior Franzy, Heinz initiates his own reign of terror over the churches and convents nearby Auschwitz, from posing as a priest in the confessional to conducting raids. He is constantly caught up in one-upmanship, pride, and various romantic pursuits; he is the center of his reality, treating others, most notably the women in his life, as inferior to himself. He is marked by manipulation, mistrust, and misunderstanding.
At the beginning of the play, we are presented with a broken Edith who has recently returned from the front during WWI, where she volunteered as a nurse for half-dead soldiers from the trenches. She is a compulsive smoker, and is haunted by the horrors she has seen, spending days locked in her attic, reliving each terrible moment. Only the intervention of her childhood friend Hannah Reinach serves to propel Edith to faith in Christ, and she repudiates her atheism, joining the Convent of the Carmelite Sisters. There she is mentored by the story’s narrator, the Prioress, along with the senile Sister Prudence and the fiery Sister Ruth. While she seeks to devote her life to prayer for her people, we begin to see she has higher ambitions than even her Nazi counterpart.
The play races towards its climax when Karl discovers the convent and simultaneously takes a liking to the earnest nun who so easily resists his attempts at seduction. Ignorant of her identity, Karl begins to visit more frequently, and the stress begins to mount on Edith’s shoulders as, time and time again, he makes clear that her refusal of him will result in the obliteration of her new home and family found in the Carmelite Sisters. Edith is thoroughly repulsed by Karl Heinz, and she begins to find that she cannot pray for him—a serious problem for a Carmelite. It is at the breaking point that Edith discovers why she cannot pray for Karl Heinz and why her attempts to intercede for her people have failed. Karl’s stated goal is to become a god on earth, seeking out his “Celestial Goddess,” to continue his line, but Edith, in her moment of trial, realizes that she burns with hatred for Karl, and desires to twist the very arm of God himself to destroy him. She admits to wanting “…to be the perfect bride for Him, as any woman wants to perfect herself for the man she loves, so that he will do her bidding…my…unholy bidding.”
Karl Heinz and Edith share the same fault. Both have a twisted view of themselves—Karl obviously the more extreme of the two—and both are devoted to their own autonomy. It manifests in Karl Heinz as megalomania and in Edith as manipulation, but at the heart, they both rebel against God’s authority to determine identity. As the play culminates in the final act with Karl and Edith, she realizes her flaw, and her response to Karl Heinz will change both their lives forever in a cavalcade of grace and sacrifice.