“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21
In September of 1939 Hitler’s army invaded Poland and touched off World War II and one of the darkest chapters in the history of the 20th Century. The reasons for Hitler’s invasion of Poland were manifold and will not be rehearsed in this article (an excellent overview can be found on Vox.com here: http://www.vox.com/2014/9/1/6084029/hitlers-invasion-of-poland-explained) but in terms of human pain, the Poles felt the weight of Nazi oppression in ways many others in Europe did not. Not only did they watch in horror as 6 million of their Jewish neighbors were “deported” to the Nazi death camps, but they themselves, a strongly Catholic people, found their faith and culture targeted for destruction.
|Nazi March in Warsaw 1939|
Father Maximilian Kolbe was a 45 year old priest at the time of the invasion. He had returned to his Polish homeland just three years earlier due to the health problems he was experiencing after years of missionary service in Japan and later India. As a young man, Kolbe had dream that inspired him to found a Christian knighthood. This knighthood, called Knights of the Immaculata, was devoted to virtuous living, prayer, service, suffering, and defense of the Catholic church against it’s enemies. Membership grew in Poland to nearly 800 and soon Fr. Kolbe founded a religious community which in turn built the largest publishing house in the nation. Their magazine alone had one million subscribers. In addition to this, they published a Polish newspaper which was quite critical of the Nazi agenda.
|Kolbe's Arrest by the Nazis|
When the Nazi’s overran Poland, Fr. Kolbe was quickly targeted for arrest and elimination. He was a threat to the regime as the head of a religious order and major publisher. He was also known to have hidden thousands of Jews and Polish refugees in the different monasteries of his order. Before long he found himself as prisoner #16670 in the notorious Auschwitz Concentration camp.
During his imprisonment, Fr. Kolbe resolved to continue his ministry as a priest to the prisoners. His was an unusual parish behind electric fences, razor wire, and guard towers. Certainly clandestine services were offered whenever possible, but most of his ministry centered on simply encouraging his fellow prisoners to trust in the love and care of God in the midst of the evil and darkness that hemmed them in on all sides.
In July of 1941, 3 prisoners had managed a near miraculous escape from the camp. The commandant of Auschwitz decided to retaliate with greater force to scare the rest of the prisoners away from thinking of another escape. He randomly selected 10 men who would be placed in an underground bunker without food or water until they died. One of the men selected was a recently captured sergeant in the Polish army named Franciszek Gajowniczek. When called forward to join the group of the condemned Gajowniczek broke down and cried out “my wife, my children!” in fear.
Standing in the assembly of prisoners from cellblock 14 and watching all this was Father Kolbe. Suddenly he stepped forward from the group and spoke to the guards.
“I wish to die for that man. I am old; he has a wife and children.”
“Identify yourself prisoner!”
“I am a Catholic priest”
For no known reason, the exchange was allowed. Gajowniczek was sent to his cellblock and Kolbe and the others were led off to be stripped naked and thrown into the pitch black of the starvation bunker.
|Father Kolbe offers himself|
The desired screams of pain and madness that were to strike terror in the hearts of the other prisoners never materialized. Instead hymns and prayers were overheard as the prisoners suffered together. After two weeks seven of the group had died a slow agonizing death, while Kolbe and two others hung on to life having only their own urine to drink. The commandant, wanting to use the bunker again ordered Kolbe and the others to be finished off by lethal injection. Kolbe and his fellow prisoners were incinerated in the ovens of Auschwitz.
Did Kolbe’s sacrifice make a difference? In the life of one man it did. Franciszek Gajowniczek, the prisoner whose life was saved, lived through the war and was freed from Auschwitz by the allied forces. After a year-long search he was able to locate and reunite with his wife Helena. Their two sons were killed by a bombing raid on Warsaw during the war.
|Auschwitz in Poland|
When Pope John Paul II canonized Maximilian Kolbe in 1982, Gajowniczek was present at the ceremony. For the remainder of his life (he died in 1995), Franciszek Gajowniczek spoke to groups of people around the world about the gift of life he received because of the love of God and the love of Fr. Kolbe for a complete stranger.
|Gajowniczek in 1982|
Father Kolbe once wrote “In this world, Modern times are dominated by Satan and will be more so in the future. The conflict with hell cannot be engaged by men, not even the most clever.” Sometimes evil must be confronted with words and force if necessary. That is the right thing to do and under certain conditions even the Christian thing to do. But there are times when evil confront us individually with such great force we are powerless to fight it. By accepting and enduring the onslaught of evil against us, we have not succumbed at all, but, like Christ and Maximilian Kolbe, we have overcome evil with good.
Kolbe was declared by Pope John Paul II (himself a fellow Pole who suffered under the Nazi occupation) the patron saint of “our difficult century.” Flowers are placed next to the starvation bunker in Auschwitz by an unknown patron each week. He is remembered in the Catholic Church worldwide on August 15th.
|Pope Benedict prays in Kolbe's cell|
Adels, Jill Haak. The Wisdom of the Saints : An Anthology. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987)
“Maximilian Kolbe” Butler’s Lives of the Saints. Bernard Bangley Ed. (Brewster : Paraclete Press, 2005)
“Maximilian Maria Kolbe” Dictionary of Christian Biography. Michael Walsh Ed. (Collegeville : The Liturgical Press, 2001)
Saint of the Day. Leonard Foley O.F.M. Ed. Revised Pat McCloskey O.F.M. (Cincinnati : St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001)
The Oxford University History of the Twentieth Century. Michael Howard and Wm. Roger Louis Eds. (New York : Oxford University Press, 1998)