So, I spent this spring break in Poland studying for a class on Religious dialogue after the Holocaust. We visited Auschwitz I and II, and everything about the trip hit powerfully. I wanted to do this week’s Wednesday Warrior on someone we heard a lot about.
Maximillian Kolbe was a Catholic priest and a Franciscan. He was the only one of his brothers to remain in the monastery in Poland after the beginning of the WWII invasion. He was in prison for three months before release, and later arrested, sent to prison again, and then transferred to Auschwitz.
As a priest, he experienced great violence and harassment in the camp. There is a rather well-known quote that new prisoners heard from Newly arrived prisoners were greeted at the camp by SS-Hauptsturmführer Fritzsch: ‘You have arrived not at a sanatorium but at a German concentration camp in which the only way out is through the chimney. If someone doesn’t like this, he may at once go to the wires. If there are any Jews in this transport, they have no right to live longer than two weeks. If there are any priests, they may live for a month, the rest only three months.’
During his second month in Auschwitz, there was an escape attempt. Prisoners, including Kolbe, were forced to stand before Fritzsch as he choice 10 prisoners to punish to deter further attempts. One of the men chosen cried out about his children and his wife, and Kolbe volunteered himself because as a priest, he did not have a family to be there for after the war. The substitution was allowed.
These prisoners were taken to a starvation cell, too small for the number of people. After two weeks in the cell, Kolbe still survived, and was killed with lethal injection. Later, he was sainted as a matyr.
There are two major ways to respond to the types of horror that people experienced in the camp. There is complete selfishness, self-preservation, a thing that none of us can blame anyone for truly. Then there is the attempts to maintain goodness and kindness, to be selfless and help those who are suffering even as you suffer. Those who make this choice exist to remind us that it is possible, in the hardest times, in the worst times, for there to be good.
And yeah, I just wrote about a Catholic guy in the Holocaust. So I want to say: the Holocaust is a Jewish tragedy and to say otherwise is utterly ridiculous regardless of the other people who died and were targeted. Of the few people approaching the level of targeting the Jews were at, the Catholics were certainly not one. But I am a Catholic, and we do love our saints.