(Today is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I am taking this opportunity to rerun this post from All Saints Day 2009.)
Today we celebrate all the saints who now dwell in perfect bliss before the Beatific Vision, seeing God face to face. All the saints love God and love their neighbor, but other than that they have little in common. We have saints who lived lives of quiet meditation, and there are saints who were ever in the midst of human tumult. Some saints have easy paths to God; others have gained their crowns at the last moment, an act of supreme love redeeming a wasted life. Many saints have been heroic, a few have been timid. We number among the saints some of the greatest intellects of mankind, while we also venerate saints who never learned to read. We have saints with sunny dispositions, and some who were usually grouchy. Saints who attained great renown in their lives and saints who were obscure in life and remain obscure after death, except to God. Among such a panoply of humanity we can draw endless inspiration for our own attempts to serve God and our neighbors. For me, one saint has always stood out as a man with a deep meaning for this period of history we inhabit: Saint Maximilian Kolbe. Why?
1. The Supernatural: How modern man shies away from the reality of the supernatural! Endless books are written and films are made about ghosts, vampires, werewolves and the other fictional entities paid homage to yesterday, but God and the reality of the supernatural is something to be kept private, for Sundays only, if even then. The life of Maximilian Kolbe shatters that current futile tendency to attempt to ignore the ultimate reality. His vision as a boy of the Blessed Virgin Mary offering the red rose of martyrdom and the white rose of purity and him choosing both, tells us that as much as we moderns wish to ignore the supernatural, it is real and it impacts our lives in ways we have no ken of.
2. Devotion to Mary: “And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee…” So wrote a great contemporary of Father Kolbe. Since the time of the Reformation, the lack of devotion to the Mother of God has been a sign of the dying of Christendom. By his founding of the Immaculata Militia and his devotion to the Immaculata, our Blessed Mother found a knight and champion in Kolbe willing to proclaim her message in the teeth of the indifference and hostility of a world that so desperately needs precisely the love and compassion of the Queen of Heaven.
3. Baptizing Media: To spread the love of Mary, Saint Maximilian and his fellow Immaculata friars used the latest publishing techniques to publish a newspaper with a circulation of 230,000 and a monthly magazine with a circulation of over a million. He was also intensely interested in radio, and was a ham radio operator with the callsign SP3RN. During the invasion, conquest and occupation of Poland he engaged in clandestine radio reports detailing Nazi atrocities. I have absolutely no doubt that if he were alive today he and his monks would be running some of the most visited sites in Saint Blog’s.
4. Global Vision: Saint Maximilian was by nature a missionary for Christ. In a series of missions to Japan between 1930-1936, in the face of growing Japanese xenophobia, he established his Immaculata friars in that country, centered in a monastery he founded on the outskirts of Nagasaki on a mountain side, which saved the monastery from the blast of the atomic bomb that leveled the city on August 9, 1945. For Saint Maximilian spreading the Gospel to non-Christians was not an add-on to his work, but at the very core of that work.
5. Love of Neighbor: After the Nazi invasion of Poland, he threw open the doors of the monastery at a Niepokalanów and gave assistance to thousands of refugees, including 2000 Jews. Even the wife of a Nazi Gauleiter was moved by the endless compassion that Kolbe had for all who sought his assistance. Facing a seemingly hopeless situation he gave hope and love to all he encountered. Hope and love have always been in short supply on this planet and perhaps never more so than today.
6. Auschwitz: A man carrying out the precepts of the Gospels under Nazi rule was a marked man, and so I am sure it came as no surprise to Father Kolbe when he was arrested by the Gestapo on February 17, 1941. After a short stay at Pawiak prison, on May 28, 1941 he was sent to the extermination camp of Auschwitz to die. Adolph Hitler was not the Anti-Christ, but it is hard in light of the death camps not to see him, along with his colleague in mass murder Joseph Stalin, as a developer of methods that might be utilized by the Anti-Christ. Auschwitz is as close as humanity has come to creating a literal Hell on Earth, and into this industrial slaughter camp strode Father Kolbe, Prisoner 16670. Whatever terrors await us in this century it is hard to believe we will manage to surpass the nihilistic worship of mass death that went on at Auschwitz. The reaction of Father Kolbe? Subject to the same beatings, starvation and brutality as his fellow prisoners, Kolbe moved among them at night, telling them that he was a Catholic priest. He prayed with them and heard their confessions. A constant theme for him was that the prisoners must pray for their persecutors and return evil with good. When he was beaten, Father Kolbe would not cry out but would pray for the man beating him. I confess that I could not do that, but I recognize the perfection of Christian love that Saint Maximilian achieved by doing so. In the midst of his sufferings he was able to send a last letter to his dear mother.
“Dear Mama, At the end of the month of May I was transferred to the camp of Auschwitz. Everything is well in my regard. Be tranquil about me and about my health, because the good God is everywhere and provides for everything with love. It would be well that you do not write to me until you will have received other news from me, because I do not know how long I will stay here. Cordial greetings and kisses, affectionately. Raymond.”
I think that when he wrote that letter he already suspected that the ultimate sacrifice might soon be required of him.
7. Sacrifice: Auschwitz had a simple rule regarding escapes. If a prisoner escaped, ten from his barracks would be murdered. (I will not dignify what the Nazis did with the term execution.) On a day in July 1941 a man from Father Kolbe’s barracks escaped. The deputy camp commander SS Hauptsturmfurher (Captain) Karl Fritzsch came to choose the victims. Fritzsch was a notable sadist even by SS standards. On December 24, 1940 he set up a Christmas tree and put beneath it the corpses of inmates. The ten men chosen would die a horrid death of dehydration and starvation. Fritzsch quickly chose the ten. One of them, Franciszek Gajowniczek, sobbed, “My poor wife, my poor children. What will they do?” Gajowniczek astonishingly survived Auschwitz and died at 94. We have his testimony for what happened next. Father Kolbe stepped silently forward, removed his cap, and stood before Fritzsch. “I am a Catholic priest. I am old. He has a wife and children.” Fritszch, not comprehending what was occurring, asked, “What does the Polish pig want?” “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place because he has a wife and children.” Father Kolbe was taken away with the other ten before he could be thanked by the man he saved. “I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me – a stranger. Is this some dream?
I was put back into my place without having had time to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this. The news quickly spread all round the camp. It was the first and the last time that such an incident happened in the whole history of Auschwitz.
For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of Maximilian. By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant. But now, on reflection, I understood that a man like him could not have done otherwise. Perhaps he thought that as a priest his place was beside the condemned men to help them keep hope. In fact he was with them to the to the last.’‘
8. Building 13: And so Father Kolbe was taken to Building 13 and locked into a room to die. What happened next we know through the testimony of Bruno Borgowiec, who also remarkably survived Auschwitz.
“The ten condemned to death went through terrible days. From the underground cell in which they were shut up there continually arose the echo of prayers and canticles. The man in-charge of emptying the buckets of urine found them always empty. Thirst drove the prisoners to drink the contents. Since they had grown very weak, prayers were now only whispered. At every inspection, when almost all the others were now lying on the floor, Father Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the centre as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men.Father Kolbe never asked for anything and did not complain, rather he encouraged the others, saying that the fugitive might be found and then they would all be freed. One of the SS guards remarked: this priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him ..Two weeks passed in this way. Meanwhile one after another they died, until only Father Kolbe was left. This the authorities felt was too long. The cell was needed for new victims. So one day they brought in the head of the sick-quarters, a German named Bock, who gave Father Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid in the vein of his left arm. Father Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, himself gave his arm to the executioner. Unable to watch this I left under the pretext of work to be done. Immediately after the SS men had left I returned to the cell, where I found Father Kolbe leaning in a sitting position against the back wall with his eyes open and his head drooping sideways. His face was calm and radiant.”
Father Kolbe died at the age of 47 on August 14, 1941, the eve of the feast of the Assumption. He had completed his mission. In an abyss of human cruelty he had successfully brought the love of Christ. A faith that can withstand Auschwitz is a faith that can lead to God so many moderns who currently wallow in an abyss of nihilism and empty hedonism. All we have to do is to emulate the courage and dedication of Saint Maximilian. Impossible? No doubt, unless we have divine assistance which fortunately is always at hand.
“Immaculata, Queen of heaven and earth, refuge of sinners and our most loving Mother, God has willed to entrust the entire order of mercy to you. I, a repentant sinner, cast myself at your feet humbly imploring you to take me with all that I am and have, wholly to yourself as your possession and property. Please make of me, of all my powers of soul and body, of my whole life, death and eternity, whatever most pleases you.” “If it pleases you, use all that I am and have without reserve, wholly to accomplish what was said of you: ‘She will crush your head,’ and, ‘You alone have destroyed all heresies in the world.’ Let me be a fit instrument in your immaculate and merciful hands for introducing and increasing your glory to the maximum in all the many strayed and indifferent souls, and thus help extend as far as possible the blessed kingdom of the most Sacred Heart of Jesus. For wherever you enter you obtain the grace of conversion and growth in holiness, since it is through your hands that all graces come to us from the most Sacred Heart of Jesus.”