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Maximilian Kolbe (1894 – 1941)


Maximilian Kolbe

1894 –1941


Raymund Kolbe was born in a village outside Lodz , part of Poland ruled by Czarist Russia. (Since the 18th century Poland had been divided among Austria , Russia and Prussia .) His father scrabbled to feed the family through weaving, his mother through midwifery. Formal education was beyond the reach of all but the most affluent. Not surprisingly 70% of the people in Kolbe’s part of Poland were illiterate.

Kolbe’s parents were doing their best to “home school” their precocious youngster when a priest noticed the boy’s intellectual gifts and began teaching him Latin. The priest unearthed resources that moved Kolbe into a Russian school in Poland where the curriculum and ethos permitted only Russian history, culture and language.

Soon the Franciscan Order, ever alert to young men who might be called to the priesthood, had him studying at its seminary in Lwow. Here the young student was re-named “Maximilian” after the 3rd century Christian, a Roman citizen from Carthage , who had been martyred for insisting that obedience to Jesus Christ superseded obedience to the state.

Krakow was the next stop. Here Kolbe studied philosophy, journeying afterwards to Rome where he immersed himself in advance theology and philosophy at both the Gregorian College and the Franciscan.

While he was in Rome the first symptoms of tuberculosis, a disease that would torment him the rest of his life, appeared. His bodily ailment, however, disturbed him far less than the vulgar anti-Catholicism whose virulence was actually an obscene vilification of the Christian faith, of the Church, and of him who is Lord of Church and faith. Heartbroken rather than angry, he dedicated himself to the recovery of “converts” to unbelief who were avowedly hostile to the gospel. Like Loyola (founder of the Jesuit Order in the 16th century) before him who had begun with six Spaniards in fulfilment of a mission they owned together, Kolbe gathered seven young Poles who remained undeflectable in their “yes” to a vocation they couldn’t deny.

At the end of World War I the Treaty of Versailles restored Poland to nationhood. Without hindrance now Kolbe could teach philosophy and Church History in Krakow — in the Polish language. Aware, from his wide exposure to people in Rome, Poland, and Russian-occupied territories that the Church had to relinquish its religious “code words”, and aware as well that military chaplains had found combatants to be unacquainted with the elemental Christian truths despite their having been raised in “Christian” Europe, Kolbe decided to publish a magazine that would communicate the gospel in popular idiom. He begged on the streets until he had raised the start-up money. In January 1922 there appeared 5000 copies of the first edition of “Knight of the Immaculate.” It aimed at re-quickening gospel conviction in people who had deliberately or witlessly embraced secularism. Tirelessly he reiterated the motif that had threaded Wesley’s work 150 years earlier: none but the holy will be ultimately happy. In four years the magazine was printing 60,000 copies. (Eventually it would expand to 230,000. Nine different publications would appear, from a journal in Latin concerning the spiritual formation of priests to an illustrated sporting magazine.)

Young men, knowing that humanism held no future for them in the wake of the unprecedented “cultured” slaughter just concluded, flocked to the Franciscan Order as its conviction of the gospel and its vision of a Kingdom-infused society ignited them. While the “publishing community” had initially numbered two priests and seventeen lay brothers, it soon included thirteen priests and 762 brothers. It had “sprouted and grown, no one knowing how” (Mark 4:22 ) into the largest Roman Catholic ordered community in the world. Every member was accomplished in a trade or a profession, and thereby able to lend support through gainful employment. The men made their own clothes, built a cottage, provided physicians for a 100-bed hospital, and operated a food processing plant.

In September 1939 Germany invaded Poland from the west. Russia attacked from the west. Kolbe’s community was overrun with refugees. In it all he remained iron fast in his convictions: Truth is unbreakable and therefore we need not fear for it; evil, while undeniable on the macro scale (Nazism and Communism left no doubt), always had to be identified and resisted on the micro scale, for the evil “out there” also courses through every last individual human heart. The most significant battles in the universe occur there — as Solzhenitsyn was later to remind millions.

The Gestapo (German secret police) arrested Kolbe in February 1941. By May he was in Auschwitz . The “Final Solution” concerning Jewish people was still a year away. Until then Auschwitz was officially not an extermination camp but “merely” a forced labour camp whose force killed thousands nonetheless. First the inmates were dehumanized. When they had been rendered sub-human, guards felt justified in treating them like vermin. The dehumanization included identifying prisoners not by name but by number. Kolbe’s number, 16670, was tattooed into his arm. Priests especially were targeted, deemed to be only “layabouts and parasites.”

When a weakened Franciscan collapsed under his load, the tubercular Kolbe attempted to help. He was kicked repeatedly in the face, lashed 50 times, and left for dead. Recovering sufficiently to be reassigned, he used his paltry bread ration for celebrating mass. He helped a younger priest carry to the camp crematorium the mutilated bodies of those who had been tortured hideously. By now men were breaking down, throwing themselves on electrified fences or drowning themselves in latrines.

Occasionally someone managed to escape. Nazi response was swift and sure: for every inmate who escaped, ten would die slowly, agonizingly in underground, airless, concrete bunkers. On one occasion eight men had been selected when the ninth cried out that his wife and children would never see him again. Kolbe offered himself as substitute. He joined the other nine in the bunker. After two weeks four men remained alive, albeit semi-suffocated. They were injected with carbolic acid. Kolbe’s friends tried to spare his remains incineration. They failed, and had to watch the ashes blow over the countryside.

Years later, when Kolbe’s name was advanced as a candidate for canonization, Bishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow (know today as Pope Paul II) was asked for a relic, a piece of a martyr’s body. He replied that all he could furnish was “a grain of Auschwitz soil.” In 1982 Kolbe was canonized a martyr-saint.

William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice, has a character ask, “At Auschwitz , tell me, where was God?” Another character answers, “Where was man?” One man at least was at Auschwitz .

And after Auschwitz ? On the day of Kolbe’s canonization in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome , Germans and Poles worshipped together in a service of reconciliation. One of the Poles was Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man whom Kolbe’s sacrifice had spared.