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April 29th 2018 print

Joe Dolce

Only Love is Creative

Maximilian Kolbe practised non-violence and love-of-enemies in circumstances most people would consider impossible: with the Nazis, in the Auschwitz death camp. What he demonstrated is that there is no coercion conceivable that can dissuade one firmly grounded in the love of others

Love does not rest but spreads like a fire consuming everything. All of us must endeavour to be penetrated with these flames of love so that this fire inflames all souls who are and will be in the world. Let us … greatly love the souls of all our neighbours, without exception, friends or enemies.
                     —Maximilian Kolbe 

He loved God more than himself. And he loved everyone in God.
Father Ruszczak (fellow priest in Auschwitz)

 

kolbeIn the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1941, 600 men of Block 14 stood at attention in the boiling sun. A prisoner had escaped earlier and the Nazis were preparing retaliation.

None of the men knew exactly what the punishment would be but it was rumoured that several of the men would be chosen for the hunger bunker, a particularly gruesome form of death by starvation. Several prisoners had keeled over in the unbearable heat and were left to lie. Finally, as the sun went down, Deputy-Commander Fritsch, second-in-command to Commandant Hess, appeared freshly bathed and dressed in the finest and cleanest uniform and boots. He had come to announce what measures would be taken against the block. The men were lined up in ten rows of sixty men each. As Fritsch surveyed them, all were trying to be inconspicuous, invisible, so as not to be singled out. There was total silence. Fritsch announced that as the escapee had not been found, ten men would be chosen to die by starvation. He then warned that the next time it would be twenty.

The selection was begun methodically and, as each number was called out, it was written down on a pad. For each man picked, the command, three paces forward, was shouted. Fritsch inspected open mouths, moved on, chose another: three paces forward. Finally, the quota was complete.

This essay appears in the April edition of Quadrant.
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One prisoner, Francis Gajowniczek, began sobbing, pleading to be spared for the sake of his wife, his children. The Nazis ignored him. Suddenly someone from the back ranks, someone who had not been selected, began pushing his way towards the front. The guards watched him. The men in the towers pointed their rifles. It was Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan friar. The first miracle occurred—nobody shot him for this unprecedented breaking of the rules.

Kolbe appeared relaxed and stepped up to Fritsch, removing his cap. “Herr Commandant, I wish to make a request, please.” He looked straight into Fritsch’s face.

“What do you want?”

Without hesitation Kolbe replied, “I want to die in place of this prisoner,” gesturing to Gajowniczek.

Fritsch stepped back a pace.

Kolbe went on, explaining that he was older and of less use to the Nazis, appealing to their “only the fit live” philosophy.

Fritsch stammered: “Who are you?”

“A Catholic priest.”

After a moment’s contemplation, Fritsch replied: “Request granted.” He kicked Gajowniczek back into the ranks.

Later, remembering Kolbe, Gajowniczek remarked:

I could only try to 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 or reality?

Kolbe and the others were taken to the hunger bunker where the sentence would be carried out.

Maximilian Kolbe practised non-violence and love-of-enemies in circumstances that most people would have considered impossible: with the Nazis, in the Auschwitz death camp. Kolbe demonstrated that there was no coercion conceivable that could dissuade one who was firmly grounded in the love of others. Certainly, he was destroyed physically, yet as a spirit and inspiration, he lifted the hearts and minds of many, perhaps giving others that small bit of strength that was required to make the important choice to live, to go on, instead of giving up.

Kolbe was canonised by the Catholic Church, and made a saint within his generation’s lifetime, an extremely rare event. The Church felt his message and his circumstance were urgently appropriate for our generation of genocide and ethnic cleansing, of war and racial hatred.

Maximilian Kolbe was a Franciscan friar, but also a Marian mystic, who evolved a complex belief system centred on the Virgin Mary. He conceived that the fundamental way to reach Christ was via his mother, Mary, as a mediatrix. He founded a large monastery in Poland, named Niepokalanow, which translated means: the property of Mary or Mary’s city: Marytown. The common greeting in Marytown of one friar to another was not “Hello”, or “Good day”, but “Maria!”

Patricia Treece wrote:

Those with a Jungian bent will say that, in his Marian devotion, he accepted and integrated his anima (i.e. the healthy feminine components of the male personality), thereby avoiding the severity or coldness of religion that is only in touch with the masculine elements of wholeness.

In the hard-hearted world of capos, starvation and human furnaces, Kolbe brought kindness, compassion, consideration for others, softness, tenderness, sacrifice, care and love without limits, not only for other prisoners, but also for the Germans, whom Kolbe felt were also, as he said, “Children of God”, and simply trapped in a system from which they could not find an exit. He extolled fellow human beings around him not to give up their faith but to put trust in the Immaculata, or Mamma Mia, as he intimately referred to Mary.

Recalling his brief and fated time in the hunger bunker, fellow prisoner Bruno Borgowiec recalled:

[Father Kolbe] looked directly and intently into the eyes of those entering the cell. Those eyes of his were always strangely penetrating. The SS men couldn’t stand his glance, and used to yell at him, “Schau auf die erde, nicht auf uns!” (Look at the ground, not at us.)

The Nazi penal bunker chief is said to have related that Kolbe “was a psychic trauma, a shock for the SS men who had to bear his look—a look that hungered not for bread but to liberate them from evil … an extremely courageous man, really a superhuman hero”.

In the hunger bunker, a forbidding place where the prisoners were told they would “dry up like tulips”, Kolbe led prayers and songs. Several Nazis later remarked that it sounded more like a church than a death cell. During the two weeks of no water and no food, most prisoners had resorted to drinking from the urine bucket. Only four were left alive.

Borgowiec continued:

The SS decided that things were taking a little too long … one day they sent for the German criminal Bock, from the hospital, to give the prisoners injections of carbolic acid. After the needle prick in the vein of the left arm, you could follow the instant swelling as it moved up the arm towards the chest. When it reached the heart, the victim would fall dead. Between injection and death was a little more than ten seconds. When Bock got there, I had to accompany them to the cell. I saw Father Kolbe, in the middle of a prayer, willingly hold out his arm to the executioner. I couldn’t bear it. With the excuse that I had some work to do, I left. But as soon as the SS and their executioner were gone, I returned. The other naked, begrimed corpses were lying on the floor, their faces betraying signs of their sufferings. Father Kolbe was sitting upright, leaning against the far wall. His body was not dirty like the others, but clean and bright. The head was tilted somewhat to one side. His eyes were open. Serene and pure, his face was radiant

Another prisoner, George Bielecki, spoke of the effects of Kolbe’s sacrifice on the remaining prisoners:

It was an enormous shock to the whole camp. We became aware someone among us in this spiritual dark night of the soul was raising the standard of love on high. Someone unknown, like everyone else, tortured and bereft of name and social standing, went to a horrible death for the sake of someone not even related to him. Therefore it is not true, we cried, that humanity is cast down and trampled in the mud, overcome by oppressors, and overwhelmed by hopelessness. Thousands of prisoners were convinced the true world continued to exist and that our torturers would not be able to destroy it. More than one individual began to look within himself for this real world, found it, and shared it with his camp companion, strengthening both in this encounter with evil. To say that Father Kolbe died for one of us or for that person’s family is too great a simplification. His death was the salvation of thousands. And on this, I would say, rests the greatness of that death. That’s how we felt about it. And as long as we live, we who were at Auschwitz will bow our heads in memory of it as at that time we bowed our heads before the bunker of death by starvation. That was a shock full of optimism, regenerating and giving strength; we were stunned by his act, which became for us a mighty explosion of light in the dark camp night …

Kolbe’s story touched a nerve in me, partially because he was such an effective advocate of non-violence, and also because he chose for his final stand Auschwitz, a place where no one would have thought it imaginable that a demonstration of non-violent activism could be applied. He was a spiritual giant with an unconditional love of others in a situation that uniformly reduced people to base survival conditions. He demonstrated that love-of-one’s-enemy could be achieved under the most inhuman conditions. He was murdered, of course. But the way he chose to live, until he died, had such a spiritual impact on those around him that it created hope for hundreds, if not thousands, of others in those unbearable conditions.

Another prisoner, Wlodarski, remarked:

No similar event ever took place at Auschwitz before or after, nor did I ever hear of anything like it in the other concentration camps. He was the only one among us capable of such a heroic deed.

Maximilian Kolbe was criticised in his lifetime for his affected way of referring to Mary as Mamma Mia, an extremely intimate way of referring to Divinity. He always said, however, that Christ’s name for God was never the austere Father, but the Aramaic term Abba, which translates closer to Papa, Da or My Little Father. He declared that Jesus had a highly personal relationship with God. Most born-again or “new” Christians strive to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. For Kolbe, however, this ultra-personal relationship was with Mary. Kolbe spoke of her, not as one speaks of a spiritual personage, but like a son talking of a tenderly loved mother. His uniqueness consists, partially, in this highly direct and intimate relationship to Mary, which is as close to pagan goddess worship as Christianity has probably ever come.

Though he suffered with tuberculosis from early youth, he strove to live a giving, heroic and fulfilling life.

Kolbe founded a monastery in Nagasaki in the early 1930s. Dr Jacob Fukahori recalls:

From his first days in Japan, he had TB of the lungs so seriously that, seeing his X-rays, I was astonished. Sometimes he had a very high fever, chills and shakes. Medically, TB tremors are terrible. He might have fever for a week at a time, and then it might go down for a month or two. During the worst spells he sometimes stayed in bed for short periods. But as soon as the tremors and fevers diminished, he immediately got up and started working.

Kolbe took his TB into Auschwitz but, due to his spiritual strength, was still able to outwork most men much younger than him.

It is hard to write about people who make apparent beyond-human life-decisions, and live in ways that seem to be too heroic to believe, without glorifying them, or making them larger than life. I don’t wish to do this. But it is essential not to forget their marvellous achievements and sacrifices, especially in an age when most of our popular role models, especially in youth culture, are violent or wealth-oriented. Spiritual heroes like Kolbe can demonstrate to believers and non-believers alike that those with a strong spiritual centre are beyond the reach of any tyranny, and are thus invincible.

Kolbe believed there were three stages to one’s life: the Preparation; the Apostolate, or Activity; the Passion, or Suffering. I have found these three steps apply in just about any serious pursuit. There’s a period where you learn, a period where you desire to spread your learning, sometimes evangelically, and then a “test of fire” where your knowledge sustains you, or crumbles. Kolbe never showed even anger, let alone hatred for the Germans, but kept exhorting his fellow friars to pray for them and to love them. He had absolutely no fear of the Gestapo, or SS, but was always serene and prudent in their presence.

Another fellow prisoner, Szweda, related:

Camp life was inhuman, unnatural—you dared not trust anyone because there were spies even amongst the prisoners … people’s animal instincts were aroused because of the hunger, everyone was driven by the need to eat … each of us thought only this: to live! Nobody interested himself in his neighbour … I especially found comfort in his urging, “Take Christ’s hand in one of yours and Mary’s in the other. Now even if you are in darkness you can go forward with the confidence of a child guided by its parents …” I owe a great deal to his motherly heart.

Another prisoner, Stemler, recalled:

[Kolbe] encouraged me to talk … “Hate is not creative, only love is creative,” he whispered, pressing my hand warmly in his. “These sufferings will not cause us to crumble but will help us, more and more, to become stronger. They are necessary even—together with the sacrifices of others—so that the ones who come after us will be happy.”

Kolbe knew he would not leave Auschwitz alive. He said: “We must do a great work for God here.”

Although he lived a frugal lifestyle, he believed in studying everything from show business to communism, seeing what was good in it, and then building on what was good. He felt that only in this way was it possible to resist what was bad. He believed that evil was merely a negation of love, and said: “It is very easy to get drunk with hate. Hate is like the glass of whisky, which is given to the soldier before a bayonet charge. Whisky stimulates but does not nourish.”

Viktor Frankl, a psychoanalyst who survived the Nazi concentration camps, wrote:

Man is ultimately self-determining … In concentration camps … some of our comrades behaved like swine, while others behaved like saints. [We] have both potentialities within ourselves; which one is actualised depends on decisions, not on conditions.

Joe Dolce, who lives in Melbourne, is a frequent contributor of poetry and prose. He wrote on “God Save the Queen” in the March issue.

 

Comments [6]

  1. Jacob Jonker says:

    Viktor Frankl would have been one of the first pop psychology authors I read. Ultimately, mankind is self-determining. What does that say about Good? Or, leaving out the o for Orgasm, God? Who to believe? Apart from reason and logic, people could offer their beliefs to others on the basis of their opinion. Religious and other ideological believers need, however, to convince themselves by trying to convince others. It is a basic necessity from a mental-emotional perspective in order for people, exceptions excepted, to be both convinced of a set of basic assumptions and to want to try and convince others. It is genetically so arranged as a survival mechanism. That is why it is nigh on impossible to wean people off the ideological mindset. Ultimately, mankind is self-determining-Ultimately in universal/Earth time, but also ultimately at the end of the debate. The debate civilised people ought to have but always seek to avoid at all cost is related to mankind’s place in the scheme of things. The existence of Good is universally acknowledged. The existence of God not so, but apart from people, mostly westerners, who are so affected by materialistic thinking as to be oblivious of the spiritual source of manifestation, i.e., the existence of our universe, by far the majority of people throughout the known history of mankind have had beliefs which are designated as being religious, but are in essence spiritual. Religion is the sociopolitical outgrowth of the spiritual essence forming, informing and suffusing human- and humanity’s consciousness. The esoterics have always understood the basic psychological mechanisms of religious beliefs. Exoteric knowledge is not knowledge as such, but information formed in the public domain in a constant mix of inputs. The mainstream narrative is usually the main driver of what is accepted by the leading clique as being the truth. Religion is politics, pure and simple. It is ever the field of political contestation in which the weapons are always psychological. Regardless of the means of delivery, be it sermons, burning of heretics, etc., unless people are destroyed as a tribe or nation, the effects sought by the antagonists in wars of ideology, thus politics, are always psychological. Even epi-genetic programming by means other than psychology are expected to bear fruit, for the political operators in question, through the psychology of kin and otherwise related people. Usually dedicated epi-genetic programming takes a few generations for the results to be come apparent. Initially, ideological programming is a family affair. Within major cultures there are many variations and the influences come in from many directions, other than from within the family unit. Computers needs a program to run. People need beliefs to function. Conviction gives people a firm base from which to strike out in life, or strike other people. Soon, inertia sets in. Convictions are rarely questioned by they who hold them-for a good reason. No sooner starts someone to doubt his/her programming than they are vulnerable to attack and infiltration. It’s a fact of life that people who wish to question their convictions thoroughly need to find sheltered space to do so without being set upon by others, even if it’s only medical of friendly help, to download into the vulnerable person, who is examinig the basis of their beliefs, a mainstream or cultist version of ideological deep content. So, changing people’s ideas is a task which needs lots of time. The elites and their minions are always at it, looking ahead many decades, even as they keep manoeuvring for short-term ingress and influence in order to maintain and/or increase their hold on people’s minds and peoples’ mind. Only a severe crisis is able to knock people and peoples off their perch. The globalisers are busy engineering one, as they hope to manipulate events to their advantage, knowing full-well that without another major crisis they will lose what little control they have now, globally. Anyway, the debate about God and whether She is or is not is futile, not just ultimately futile. It is a distraction which stops people making sense of who they are and where they are at. Divide and rule. It is well to hold a strong opinion, if only as self-defence, but no sooner is their some public opinion about but it is prey to the manipulations and machinations of political operators in any and all guises and customised gradations.

  2. en passant says:

    Joe,
    Kolbe, Bonhoffer are undoubtedly superb examples of the power of their faith, but then so are all fanatics, including suicide bombers (though they are driven by an evil requiring them to harm others).
    What Kolbe did is commendable as he gave his life to save another, but his death also proved that ‘loving your enemies’ is a failure.

    Auschwitz was finally liberated by heavily armed soldiers killing the evil people protecting it. No amount of ‘love’ would have ever freed the inmates or saved Europe. This lesson has long since been lost on Australian politicians and her people. Just read the Greens Kumbayah Defence policy or the direction taken by senior military disgraces to their uniform.

    In the QoL article, ‘The Implacable Assault on ANZAC’ there was no vision of going to a better place at Gallipoli when: “On one occasion a soldier pleaded with an officer to allow him to replace another soldier about to go on a dangerous raid: “Let me go instead … he has a wife and family to look after.” The young man’s request was granted and he saved his mate’s life, as he died that night in his friend’s stead. We should look in awe at men who would volunteer to take another’s place on a suicidally dangerous operation, …”.

    I do not diminish Kolbe’s sacrifice, but this Australian soldier’s decision is an even higher form of self-sacrifice than one Kolbe made while believing that his death was but a transition.

    Commandant Hoss (not ‘Hess’) was executed in Poland, but the fate of Fritsch has never been confirmed. It is possible he suicided just before the end of thw war, but there are other reports as late as 1996 of him in Norway. Love did not punish him for his crimes.

    The article expresses valuable civilised sentiments, but nfortunately, the meek die and the the armed strong conquer or defend the meek.

  3. LBLoveday says:

    Similarly, “I do not diminish Kolbe’s sacrifice”, and I was not there, but there seems, to me, to be a lot of hyperbole in the story.
    Starting with “the boiling sun” and “the unbearable heat” – yes, it was August, but even Auschwitz’s hottest ever day would not, to my mind, justify such extreme description.
    Then “a particularly gruesome form of death by starvation” – by dehydration actually if, as we are later told, they received “no water and no food”, as dehydration will kill you long before starvation. Obviously I’ve not actively experienced death by dehydration, and the person I did see die thus was drugged to his eyeballs with morphine, but I’ve read extensively on it, and the typical comment is along the lines of: “Dying from dehydration is generally not uncomfortable once the initial feelings of thirst subside. If you stop eating and drinking, death can occur as early as a few days, though for most people, approximately ten days is the norm. In rare instances, the process can take as long as several weeks”. And “there is also some evidence that ketosis can produce a state of well-being or mild euphoria”. Hardly gruesome, let alone “particularly gruesome” it seems to me.
    These “people’s animal instincts were aroused because of the hunger”, so they would have been in a weakened state and partially dehydrated as a result of having been in the sun for a time, presumably without water. A good friend recently had a stroke, hit the floor in his steel workshop and was 4 days lying on his back before someone found him. He was well fed, well hydrated and cv fit, running every day and working as a trimmer, but was told he’d likely not have lasted 2 more days if not found. Maybe drinking urine helped, but I doubt it – survival guides such as The SAS Survival Handbook generally advise against drinking urine for survival. These guides state that drinking urine tends to worsen, rather than relieve dehydration due to the salts in it, and that urine should not be consumed in a survival situation, even when there is no other fluid available.
    I don’t suggest the prisoners would have known that, but it seems unlikely to have prolonged the time taken to die, and I am surprised 4 of the ten lasted 10 days, but have no reason to refute it. Why one would want to prolong a certain death is beyond me. Maybe lasting 10 days was the second “miracle” – earlier I read “The first miracle occurred—nobody shot him for this unprecedented breaking of the rules”, which hardly seems a “miracle” to me, but there is no mention of the second or subsequent one(s).
    Then Kolbe was seen to “willingly hold out his arm to the executioner”. Hardly surprising – many people have even killed themselves to avoid a lingering death (O’Reilley’s Killing Jesus gives accounts of Romans killing themselves to avoid torture). I presume I could not get my arm out quickly enough for a 10-second journey to death unless I thought there was a realistic hope of rescue.
    Many men – soldiers, police, fathers, husbands, even strangers – have sacrificed their lives to save that of another, taken a bullet while knowingly shielding another, primarily women and children, but also men as in the case mentioned above by ep, although that death was not certain, even far from certain, which questions, but does not extinguish, the validity of ep’s description of “an even higher form of self-sacrifice”.

  4. Lewis P Buckingham says:

    Watching SBS program on Sunday evening, ‘after the war’, there was a short section on the Nuremburg trials.
    One piece of evidence given by a communist survivor was that one day there was a lot of screaming at the gas chambers.
    Apparently they had run out of gas and a group of children had not died in a chamber, so they were thrown into the furnace alive.
    It is not easy for me to rationalise this.
    The ethos was to kill horribly.
    I don’t think long rationalisations about dying of thirst make it ‘nice’.
    The primal drive for water is used on the most efficient of water users that survive in arid zones,the cat.
    The best way of safely having a tiger enter a squeeze cage, before immobilon, was to deprive it of water for a few days
    then put the water at the end of the cage.
    I would not easily swap with someone in the same position,that decision transcends any rationalisation.

  5. Paul says:

    Great piece of writing from my favourite Quadrant writer. I read it out loud to my kids. Keep on.