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August 14, 2015


Dear Friends:

On May 28, 1941, the Nazi SS loaded 320 prisoners from the Polish prison of Pawiak into closed boxcars and transferred them to the concentration camp of Auschwitz. Upon arrival, the prisoners, still gasping for air from the fetid confinement of the train ride, met with the usual greeting to arriving inmates. Rudolf Höss, the Camp Commander (or his Deputy Commander, Karl Fritsch), outlined their destiny in short, snapping words:

“Let me tell you that you have not arrived at a health spa, but a German concentration camp. You will find only one exit – the crematorium chimney. If you don’t like the sound of this, you can leave at once by throwing yourself on the electric fences. Now if any of you are Jews, you have the right to the live no longer than two weeks; priests, one month; the rest of you, three months.”

Among the 320 prisoners who listened to these words of welcome was the Conventual Franciscan friar Maximilian Kolbe. Born on January 8, 1894, in Zdunska Wola, in southern Poland, Kolbe joined the Conventual Franciscans in September, 1910. After earning his doctorate in philosophy at the Gregorian University in Rome, he was ordained on August 28, 1918, and a year later earned his Th.D. in Theology at the Franciscan International College in the holy city.

Kolbe’s well-known love and affinity for Mary, under the title of the Immaculate Conception, drove him to establish, on October 1, 1927, Niepokalanow, in Polish, “the City of the Immaculata.” It quickly became a center of evangelization by information media ahead of its times. It published two newspapers, devoted to a critical Catholic analysis of the issues of the day. Their early opposition to Nazism would lead to Kolbe’s eventual arrest. After a period of missionary work in Nagasaki, Japan, 1930-1936, Kolbe returned to Poland. Hitler’s armies invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, unleashing World War II. On September 19, Niepokalanow was commandeered by the Nazis, and Kolbe put under arrest. Released two months later, he returns to Niepokalanow, but was arrested again on February 17, 1941, taken to Pawiak prison, and from there to Auschwitz.

Upon arriving at the camp, Kolbe was given the prisoner number 16670. He was assigned to Block 14A, where 600 inmates lived in subhuman conditions.

Kolbe’s life in Auschwitz has been amply documented by camp survivors who were living witnesses to Kolbe’s faithfulness to his own, often-repeated principle: “Love without limits.” This love would reach its Paschal fullness when, on July 31, a prisoner from his own cell block escaped. The inmates knew their fate: 10 or 20 would be selected to die an agonizingly slow death at the Starvation Bunker.

As the sirens sounded alerting the camp guards to the escape, the 600 prisoners from Block 14A were lined at the camp square by Karl Fritsch, the deputy commander, 10 lines of about 60 men each. Ted Wodjtkowski, a camp survivor, who lived in Block 14A, with Kolbe, was standing a few yards away from him. He was a key witness to what happened next. Fritsch walked up and down the lines, tapping prisoners at random for the bunker of death. He came to Kolbe, look at the emaciated figure of the 47-year-old friar, sneered and walked on. Kolbe had been spared. When the number was complete, the German capos lined the doomed prisoners to walk to the bunker. Then, as Wodjtkowsky reports, a sobbing was heard. It was Francis Gajowniczek, a 35-year-old Polish Army Sargent: “My wife and my children!” The Nazi guards ignore him. Suddenly, a commotion is heard. A prisoner standing in one of the back rows steps forward, towards Fritsch. The following dialogue ensued:

Kolbe: “Herr Kommandant, I wish to make a request, please,” in flawless German.

Fritsch: “What do you want?”

Kolbe: “I want to die in place of this prisoner,” pointing to Gajowniczek. “I have no wife or children. Besides, I am old, and not good for anything. He is in better condition.”

Fritsch: “Who are you?”

Kolbe: “A Catholic priest.”

Fritsch (after a long, silent interval): “Request granted.”

Kolbe’s witness in the bunker, as he suffered, along with the others, the excruciating pain of starvation and thirst, is best testified by a comment heard by the bunker Polish physician,    Francis Wlodarski, from one of the SS guards: “So einen wie diesen Pfarrer haben wir hier noch nicht gehabt. Das muss ein ganz aussergewöhnlicher Mensch sein” (“We have never had a priest here like this one. He must be a wholly exceptional man”)

By August 14, only 4 prisoners were left alive, prisoner 16670, Kolbe, among them. The SS guards sent a common criminal employed at the prison, named Bock, to inject them with carbolic acid. Wlodarski accompanied him. He saw Kolbe stretch his arm out to receive the lethal injection. After the execution was done, Wlodarski reported that “Kolbe was sitting upright, leaning against the far wall . . . The head was somewhat tilted to one side, His eyes were open. Serene and pure, his face was radiant.’

Kolbe’s paschal death is best defined by the alternative Gospel reading in today’s Mass (John 15: 12-16): “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (v . 13). Kolbe’s paschal event has always impressed me, at the deepest recesses of my gut and heart: it was an agonizing death, it was painful beyond imagining, BUT, the main issue here is THAT KOLBE DID NOT HAVE TO DO  IT: Fritsch’s baton did not tap him, he was not chosen for the bunker of starvation. Surely there are echoes here of Ignatius of Loyola’s ‘Third Way of Humility”:

“The third is most perfect humility, namely, when – including first and second and the praise and glory of the Divine Majesty being equal – in order to imitate and be more actually like Christ our Lord, I WANT AND CHOOSE poverty with Christ poor rather than riches, opprobrium with Christ replete with it rather than honors, and DESIRE to be rated as worthless and a fool for Christ, who first was held as such, rather than wise or prudent in this world” (Spiritual Exercises, 167 – Capitals mine).

Prisoner # 16670 “wanted and chose opprobrium with Christ replete with it,” he embraced the luminous splendor shining behind and through the horrors of a bunker cell filled with dying prisoners, of the pain and the anguish. He epitomized St. Paul’s own hymn to the power of the powerless, as we read in today’s Short Reading from the Liturgy of the Hours, Morning Prayer:

“Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ, for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12: 10)\

Maximilian `Kolbe’s own self-surrendering, vulnerable, utterly dangerous and yet, liberating, communion with the Cross of Christ summons us to embrace and kiss the luminous splendor of Christ’s face begging, crying, demanding compassion and justice from the face of the hungry, the poor, the excluded, the despised of this earth. Kolbe became a light of hope within the demonic darkness of Auschwitz; he chose to take the place of a man sentenced to death – so, in a sense, are we called to take the place of the suffering and victims, of those marked for death, exclusion and contempt by our opulent societies, and bring them to love, light and life.

Maximilian Kolbe, prisoner of Christ # 16670, intercede for us!


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