In 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, 2018, edition of Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
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.
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.