The Saint of Auschwitz
Aug 14, 2019
Saint Maximilian Kolbe
I am sure that for most of us who follow sports, especially when the playoffs roll around, we marvel at how certain athletes are able to step up their game so to speak to champion status. We cannot help but marvel and respect the tremendous effort, sacrifice and discipline it requires to even be in a position to compete for championship glory.
All this for applause and that sensation of glory that too quickly fades into the deafening silence of getting older, more feeble and less remembered.
But this is not the case for us who compete with the forces of this world and those other demonic forces who seek to defeat and destroy us. For there is no greater support we have in place than Christ Himself who has won for Himself and all of us a Crown of Glory, Honor and Remembrance that will last forever.
And like those athletes who endure so much pain, sacrifice, failure, disappointment they do so for the sake of the joy that lay before them...Sainthood.
One of those Saints is Saint Maximilian Kolbe.
In 1936 Kolbe was asked to supervise a friary near Warsaw. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, he and the other friars began to organize a shelter for 3,000 Polish refugees, among whom were 2,000 Jews. They housed, fed and clothed them.
Then in May 1941 the friary was closed down and Maximilian and four companions were taken to the death camp Auschwitz.
In the harshness of the slaughterhouse Father Kolbe maintained the gentleness of Christ. A prisoner later recalled how he and several others often crawled across the floor at night to be near the bed of Father Kolbe, to make their confessions and ask for consolation. Father Kolbe pleaded with his fellow prisoners to forgive their persecutors and to overcome evil with good.
When he was beaten by the guards, he never cried out. Instead, he prayed for his tormentors. A doctor in the camp, Rudolph Diem, later recalled:'I can say with certainty that during my four years in Auschwitz, I never saw such a sublime example of the love of God and one's neighbor.'
In order to discourage escapes, Auschwitz had a rule that if a man escaped, ten men would be killed in retaliation. In July 1941 a man from Kolbe's bunker escaped.
The ten were selected, including Franciszek G. He couldn't help a cry of anguish. 'My poor wife!' he sobbed. 'My poor children! What will they do?' When Francis uttered this cry of dismay, God answered his call as Kolbe stepped silently forward, took off his cap, and stood before the commandant and said, 'I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.'
Francis later recalled:
'I could only thank him with my eyes. I could hardly grasp what was going on: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me - a stranger.’
Father Kolbe was thrown down the stairs of Building 13 along with the other victims and simply left there to starve. Maximilian Kolbe encouraged the others with prayers, psalms, and meditations on the Passion of Christ and the Rosary.
A personal testimony about the way Maximilian Kolbe met death is given by Bruno Borgowiec who was assigned to render service to the starvation bunker: '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. 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.
One of the SS guards remarked: this priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him .
One after another they died, until only Father Kolbe was left. 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. Father Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, himself gave his arm to the executioner. Father Kolbe's body was removed to the crematorium, like hundreds of thousands who had gone before him, and hundreds of thousands more who would follow.
The heroism of Father Kolbe went echoing through Auschwitz. In that desert of hatred he had sown love. A survivor Jerzy Bielecki declared that Father Kolbe's death was 'a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength ... It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp.'
Kolbe on a few occasions was actually able to celebrate Mass in Auschwitz. That elevation reminds us that Christ remains fully present and powerful in this world, amidst the absolute worst circumstances.
Wherever there is a Mass to attend or tabernacle to pray before...Christ remains in this world, in each of our lives, not as a memory but an actual living presence of peace and love.
And the man Father Kolbe saved?
He died on March 13, 1995, 95 years old - and 53 years after Kolbe had saved him. After his release from Auschwitz, Gajowniczek made his way back to his hometown. He found his wife but his two sons had been killed during the war.
Every year on August 14 he went back to Auschwitz. He spent the next five decades paying homage to Father Kolbe, honoring the man who died on his behalf, because Christ died on behalf of all.