Thursday, November 10, 2011
He was prisoner #16670. That was all that was important to the guards at Auschwitz. Back at his home church in Poland, he was known as Father Maximilian Kolbe, a simple monk, who loved to serve the church. A year earlier to Father Kolbe’s arrest, Hitler sent out a secret memorandum to Hans Frank, the new Governor General of occupied Poland. “As for Poland’s hundreds of thousands of priests – they will preach what we want them to preach. If any priest acts differently, we shall make short work of him. The task of the priest is to keep the Poles quiet, stupid and dull-witted.” Father Kolbe quickly became one of those priests who did not fit the Nazi mould and was arrested and convicted for publishing illegal material. Father Kolbe arrived at the infamous concentration camp Auschwitz in May of 1941, where he was promptly told that the life expectancy of a priest was one month. After being overworked in the timber detail, Kolbe collapsed. Guards gathered around Kolbe. He was mercilessly kicked, given fifty lashes, then shoved in a ditch, and left to die. The guards snickered as they walked away, not bothered that they had just left a man to die. A couple of brave prisoners found Kolbe and brought him to the camp hospital, where miraculously Kolbe revived.
In July of 1941, a man from Kolbe’s barracks escaped. The next morning, the men from barracks 14 were brought out to stand before the camp commandant on the parade ground. Because the man had made a clean get away, the incensed camp commandant decreed that ten men would be put to death in the starvation chambers. The men from barracks 14 shuddered at hearing the punishment. The hunger chamber was the worst way to die at Auschwitz. Ten men were quickly pulled out of the block of men, and their numbers were recorded. One of the chosen men fell to his knees and cried out in anguish about the family he was leaving behind – ‘My wife! My poor children! – what will they do?’ It was then that prisoner #16670 stepped out of the ranks and approached a guard. The parade ground erupted in cries of astonishment as Father Kolbe asked to take the place of the distraught man in the line of ten condemned men. Instant execution was the usual norm for those who approached a guard without permission, but the guard was curious to hear what Kolbe would say. “May I take his place?” Father Kolbe asked. “Why would you want to take his place?” yelled the guard. Kolbe replied that “I am just an old man with no family, and good for nothing.” The guard looked at him with disgust but allowed the substitution. Father Kolbe followed the other nine men into the terrible starvation cells.
The cries of the men in the starvation cells could usually be heard in the rest of the camp, but when Father Kolbe was sent there, faint singing could be heard. For the prisoners with Kolbe, they had in Kolbe a shepherd to lead them through the shadow of the valley of death. For this reason perhaps, Father Kolbe was the last to die.
Franciszek Gajowniczek was the man who Father Kolbe replaced. He survived Auschwitz and returned to his family and died at the age of 95. Gajowniczek never wasted any opportunities in telling of the powerful act of witness and love shown by Father Kolbe.
Still today, Kolbe’s testimony shines. Kolbe did not witness, he was a witness. Francis of Assisi’s said “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Father Kolbe exhibited this in Auschwitz. He lived the tenants of Christ’s teachings and exemplified Christian living through his witness.
“He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. "Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!" The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah”