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August 14, 2006
Saint Maximilian Kolbe, A Saint For Our Times

Today is the feast day of my favorite saint (yes, I know, Catholic alert!), Father Maximilian Kolbe. The patron saint of journalists, families, and prisoners died in Auschwitz in 1941, taking the place of another selected for death. His amazing story is told at the Auschwitz web site:

In order to discourage escapes, Auschwitz had a rule that if a man escaped, ten men would be killed in retaliation. In July 1941 a man from Kolbe's bunker escaped. The dreadful irony of the story is that the escaped prisoner was later found drowned in a camp latrine, so the terrible reprisals had been exercised without cause. But the remaining men of the bunker were led out.

'The fugitive has not been found!' the commandant Karl Fritsch screamed. 'You will all pay for this. Ten of you will be locked in the starvation bunker without food or water until they die.' The prisoners trembled in terror. A few days in this bunker without food and water, and a man's intestines dried up and his brain turned to fire.

The ten were selected, including Franciszek Gajowniczek, imprisoned for helping the Polish Resistance. He couldn't help a cry of anguish. 'My poor wife!' he sobbed. 'My poor children! What will they do?' When he uttered this cry of dismay, Maximilian stepped silently forward, took off his cap, and stood before the commandant and said, 'I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.'

Astounded, the icy-faced Nazi commandant asked, 'What does this Polish pig want?'

Father kolbe pointed with his hand to the condemned Franciszek Gajowniczek and repeated 'I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.'

Observers believed in horror that the commandant would be angered and would refuse the request, or would order the death of both men. The commandant remained silent for a moment. What his thoughts were on being confronted by this brave priest we have no idea. Amazingly, however, he acceded to the request. Apparantly the Nazis had more use for a young worker than for an old one, and was happy to make the exchange. Franciszek Gajowniczek was returned to the ranks, and the priest took his place.

Gajowniczek later recalled:

'I could only 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?

I was put back into my place without having had time to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this. The news quickly spread all round the camp. It was the first and the last time that such an incident happened in the whole history of Auschwitz.

For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of Maximilian. By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant. But now, on reflection, I understood that a man like him could not have done otherwise. Perhaps he thought that as a priest his place was beside the condemned men to help them keep hope. In fact he was with them to the last.'‘

Father Kolbe was thrown down the stairs of Building 13 along with the other victims and simply left there to starve. Hunger and thirst soon gnawed at the men. Some drank their own urine, others licked moisture on the dank walls. Maximilian Kolbe encouraged the others with prayers, psalms, and meditations on the Passion of Christ. After two weeks, only four were alive. The cell was needed for more victims, and the camp executioner, a common criminal called Bock, came in and injected a lethal dose of cabolic acid into the left arm of each of the four dying men. Kolbe was the only one still fully conscious and with a prayer on his lips, the last prisoner raised his arm for the executioner. His wait was over.

Gajowniczek survived Auschwitz, which was a miracle in itself. He eventually attended the ceremony that canonized Father Kolbe as a saint in 1981. He returned to Auschwitz every year on August 14th, the date that the Nazis finally had to kill Kolbe with an injection, to offer prayers on his behalf. Gajowniczek died in 1995, fifty-four years after Kolbe's sacrifice.

I think of Father Kolbe when we see the heroics of everyday people thrown into extraordinary circumstances. World Trade Center, which I reviewed yesterday, provided a number of examples of people who risked their lives to save others. United 93 showed people who almost certainly knew that they had forfeited their lives to save others. Few get the opportunity to personally put themselves in another's place for certain execution without any guarantee of saving the other life, with only trust in the Lord. The Nazi commandant could easily have added Kolbe to the other ten, after all, or could have killed Gajowniczek separately later.

Why didn't he do that? Why did the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz -- someone we can certainly assume to be as evil as any who goose-stepped the Earth in that period -- allow Kolbe to sacrifice himself for another? It makes no worldly sense, but it happened. It's where reason ends and faith begins, and why Father Kolbe makes such a compelling figure of faith for so many.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 14, 2006 6:42 AM

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» Father Maximilian Kolbe -- a saint for bloggers from Steve Janke: Angry in the Great White North
Today is the feast day of Father Maximilian Kolbe. Father Kolbe is also a patron saint of journalists, which might come as a surprise to Catholic bloggers. Before the war, he set up a radio station using the era's new media. Perhaps he could be the pat... [Read More]

Tracked on August 14, 2006 9:59 AM

» Father Maximilian Kolbe -- a saint for bloggers from Steve Janke: Angry in the Great White North
Today is the feast day of Father Maximilian Kolbe. Father Kolbe is also a patron saint of journalists, which might come as a surprise to Catholic bloggers. Before the war, he set up a radio station using the era's new media. Perhaps he could be the pat... [Read More]

Tracked on August 14, 2006 10:02 AM

» Father Maximilian Kolbe -- a saint for bloggers from Steve Janke: Angry in the Great White North
Today is the feast day of Father Maximilian Kolbe. Father Kolbe is also a patron saint of journalists, which might come as a surprise to Catholic bloggers. Before the war, he set up a radio station using the era's new media. Perhaps he could be the pat... [Read More]

Tracked on August 14, 2006 10:11 AM

» Good can stand up to evil from Bookworm Room
Ive been depressed lately by the sheer volume of scary and bad news: the Israeli/Hezbollah war and its pathetic outcome, with Israel actually believing that signing on to the defeatist UN ceasefire will improve her standing in world opinion; the plann... [Read More]

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» Good can stand up to evil from Bookworm Room
I’ve been depressed lately by the sheer volume of scary and bad news: the Israeli/Hezbollah war and its pathetic outcome, with Israel actually believing that signing on to the defeatist UN ceasefire will improve her standing in world opinion; th... [Read More]

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» Maximilian Kolbe from The Florida Masochist
The two photos above were taken when Dear Wife and I visited Poland in August 2000. While there we visited Auschwitz. The first photo shows the gate to the concentration camp. The second photo is of a memorial to Father Maximilian Kolbe. [Read More]

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Feast Day: Yesterday. Kolbe. Auschwitz. Sacrifice. Christ. [Read More]

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» St. Maximilian Kolbe from The Anchoress
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