Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Saint Maximilian Kolbe
Today is the feast day of The Saint of Auschwitz, the German priest who voluntarily took the place of a fellow prisoner who was to be put in a starvation cell to die. Father Maximilian Kolbe was unknown to me until my mother mentioned his name in connection with a trip she'd made to Germany. I paid little attention at the time, not being a Catholic and knowing little of saints or even priests, especially German ones. However, one night, after reading to my kids from Bill Bennett's Book of Virtues, I flipped through the book absent-mindedly and happened upon the story of Father Kolbe.
The attempted escape of a prisoner at Auschwitz resulted in the punishment of the others. Ten people in Father Kolbe's barracks were destined for the punishment, death by starvation, among them a man named Franciszek Gajowniczek who called out that, no, he couldn't be among those condemned, he had a wife and child who depended upon him. That Gajowniczek, knowing himself to be a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, might have harbored the notion that his role as father and husband would have any bearing on his fate testifies to a certain irrationality of mind on Gajowniczek's part or maybe an incurable optimism of spirit. Perhaps though it was the human being's unflagging will to live or some combination of all that. At Gajowniczek's cry, Fr. Kolbe demonstrated another remarkable dimension of the human spirit and announced himself as a Catholic priest who would take Gajowniczek's place. A sacrifice. Who would ever do such a thing I asked myself. Answer, a saint.
The account as it's written in Bennett's book (a highly abbreviated version of which is here) mentions the names of the Nazis but identifies Gajowniczek only as the prisoner. I tried to tell myself that maybe I was reading a fictionalized account of Fr. Kolbe's fate, but no such luck. A few days later I found an entire website devoted to the man Fr. Kolbe died for. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find the website again coming up instead with this . There's also Wikipedia of course. Gajowniczek, not a Jew by the way, did survive and was reunited with his wife. He died in 1995.
Fr. Kolbe was the last in the starvation cell to die, murdered by a Nazi who administered an injection of carbolic acid.