The monk who saved humanity

For his fellow prisoners, this priest's voluntary death was proof there is a place for heroism even in a concentration camp and it showed that despite the Nazis’ best efforts it is possible to maintain human dignity and true love.

The final stage of Father Maximilian's earthly pilgrimage began on May 28th 1941 when, together with a group of 320 prisoners from Warsaw's Pawiak prison, he was loaded onto a windowless rail truck which was immediately sealed. The prisoners did not know where they were being taken and were uncertain and anxious about their fate. The conditions in which they travelled were horrible. When 80 people were crammed into a single truck, there was nowhere to sit and, moreover, a lack of air to breathe. The SS-men provided neither food nor water. “Overcrowding; transport lasting scores of hours in closed, unventilated trucks; unbearable closeness and stench as well as overpowering thirst; these were but a prelude to what awaited them when they were unloaded onto the camp's ramp.” Although there is scant testimony about the transport in which Father Maximilian travelled, it is known for certain that this time things were different to usual. From the outset the prisoners began singing Marian hymns intoned by the monk. The new transport reached its destination in the evening. Passing through the gate marked a symbolic descent into hell. That simple structure marked not only the end of freedom but of human dignity as well.                                                 

Maximilian Kolbe, 1936 Death's anteroom

Father Kolbe spent his first two days hauling stones and gravel to build a fence by the crematorium. He must have already realised that the purpose of that effort was not to fulfil a task but to exhaust the workers. When an SS-man guarding the prisoners noticed a young boy trying to help Father Maximilian, whose wheelbarrow had been loaded with too much gravel, he reacted immediately by ordering each of them to be thrashed with a stick ten times and then transport one another in wheelbarrows full of gravel. “I had never touched a corpse,” Józef Stemler recalls. “And here I was ordered with another prisoner to place two corpses into a wooden trough similar to what butchers use to steam butchered pigs. I looked at one of the corpses. It was a naked man with a bloodied abdomen, arms twisted behind his back and a swollen neck and face on which a grimace of pain was frozen. I shuddered, felt I was going to faint. The SS-man shouted. ‘Let's get hold of him, brother,’ I heard a tranquil voice say. For a split second it seemed I knew that voice from somewhere. With the greatest revulsion I grabbed hold of the corpse's bloodied legs, my comrade took it by the arms and we placed the corpse in the trough. Then we placed the other corpse with its head at the opposite side, covered the trough with a lid and on the SS-man's order we carried that death-camp coffin away.

I felt horrible. My arms were limp. My clogs fell off my feet. I thought to myself that I'd be better off lying in that trough... Suddenly I heard the words softly murmured by my co-pallbearer. ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us...’ and I felt as if I had been penetrated by a jolt of electricity that completely obliterated my malaise.”

At the end of that journey, inside the crematorium building, Father Kolbe (whom his long-standing acquaintance recognised at precisely that moment) added: “Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord...” for the people whose lifeless bodies he had to carry.

The inner tranquillity emanating from the priest needled Heinrich Krott and the furious foreman and, one day, he decided to torture him to death. The reason? There was no room reason at Auschwitz or any other concentration camp. They existed, after all, for the sole purpose of murdering people, and the orders for those murders were given by the guards themselves.

“The most endangered were people unfit to work, the sick, elderly, children, pregnant women, men of small stature, people of certain nationalities (such as Jews, Gypsies, Poles and Russians), and people representing the intelligentsia (for instance professors and priests).” And the latter reason was probably the most important.

He began preparations for the priest's death in the morning. He personally chose the heaviest branches and ordered Maximilian to run while carrying them to where they were to be moved. Every time the priest fell he was beaten, kicked in the face and stomach and thrashed with a stick.

“You don't want to work, you parasite! I'll show you what work is,” he shouted. Father Maximilian's reply was a humble glance and a prayer, and that only further enraged his oppressor. During the break (sadistically referred to as a lunch break) the SS-man had clearly made up his mind to murder the priest and ordered him to lie down on a log before having the beefiest prisoner give him 50 blows. In the case of a sick, starving and exhausted victim that could have amounted to the death penalty. Everything pointed in that direction when the priest lost consciousness; the victimiser then ordered him to be covered with branches, expecting him to expire on his own before the day was out. But that did not occur.  The emaciated tubercular who had been sharing his bread with others was still alive. Prisoners took him into the camp and carried him to the hospital where the diagnosis was pneumonia and general exhaustion.

The term “camp hospital” may be misleading. In actuality, that institution was an extermination zone, as were all the camp's remaining areas. Unlike the Auschwitz camp's early history—when prisoners were still in relatively good shape, and the hospital was an oasis of peace—from spring 1941, when the camp endured a typhus epidemic, the hospital became a death house. The selection by SS-men of gas-chamber victims entrenched the opinion that “the hospital is the crematorium's anteroom.”

I want to die in his place

Maximilian's final moments on earth began on July 29th 1941. On that day, a dramatic piece of information swept through the camp: a prisoner had escaped. It was Zygmunt Pilawski, number 1415635.

What did such an escape mean for the prisoners? If the escapee was not found, ten prisoners got sent to the starvation bunker. That procedure was to be followed this time as well, but before the Nazis made their selection they kept all the prisoners in the assembly area without any food. The next day they again forced the prisoners to assemble there. Commandant Fritzsch announced they would remain standing to attention until the fugitive got caught and, if he was not caught, ten of them would be doomed to death by starvation.

It was a scorching hot July day. Prisoners grew weak and fainted. Those who dropped were carried out of the ranks and dumped in a heap. By evening, many were lying there. Those who continued to stand had swollen faces, and their eyes were clouded with mist from the heat and extreme exhaustion that standing to attention had produced.

After the escapee had remained at liberty throughout the day-long assembly, ten prisoners were to be selected. Fritzsch walked along the ranks of prisoners and pointed out the victims in each one... A sigh of relief ran through the columns where the selection had already taken place, whilst the chosen ones stepped forward. One of those selected, prisoner number 5659, Franciszek Gajowniczek, began despairing. “How sorry I feel for my wife and the kids I will orphan,” he said. Father Maximilian heard it, and when the selection process had ended, he stepped forward, removed his cap and stood at attention before camp commandant Fritzsch.

“What does that Polish pig want?” the SS-man asked. “I am a Polish Catholic priest, I am old and want to die in place of the man with a wife and children,” the Franciscan said, indicating Franciszek Gajowniczek.

For a moment the SS-man fell silent but—in what may have been the camp's first miracle of the Blessed Virgin Mary - he agreed. Although he could have added the priest to the group of condemned men without freeing Gajowniczek, the family man was allowed to return to the ranks and the Franciscan took his place.

Why did Father Maximilian do what he did?  To answer that question one should begin with his own words, which indicated his desire to return a father to his family. A man, a priest and a monk concluded that a specific family needed a father, a man and someone who sacrifices his own life for it—motivated by a love of family, matrimony and family obligations.

There are other interpretations as well. Father Albert Wojtczak suggested that it might have involved a desire to help the victims of the selection who in the face of a horrible death should not be alone. Perhaps he wanted to keep them company, lend them his support and restore their hope in the face of death by starvation. Or maybe the Blessed Virgin Mary, who always accompanied him, had focused his mind on the words of the gospel pointing the way to martyrdom.

Regardless of subsequent interpretations, there was no doubt about one thing: the monk's voluntary death became proof for the prisoners that a concentration camp was also a place for heroism, and that despite all the Nazis' efforts, even there it was possible to maintain human dignity and true love.

There were many who believed that his choice had been a refuge from prolonged suffering. However, experienced prisoners and doctors soon recalled that Father Kolbe had a good chance to survive the camp, and death by starvation could hardly be called an escape. “Father Kolbe had every chance and reason to hope he would leave Auschwitz. He was in the sick ward. He did not work and had many friends. He spoke German, so he could even perform some function in his cell block. So he could have survived and had no reason to flee from life.” That, according to Father Szweda, was the belief of camp physician Dr Wilhelm Turschmidt, incarcerated for refusing to sign the Volksliste (list of ethnic Germans).

Not much is known about the exact circumstances of Father Maximilian Kolbe's cruel martyr's demise. It was witnessed by people doomed to die with him. It therefore remains a mystery what exactly happened, what words the Franciscan used to console his downtrodden fellow prisoners and his actual death which occurred in a closed cell. But what we do know leaves no room for doubt that it truly was a martyr's death to which he and nine others were condemned out of hatred not only towards Christ but to faith in humanity in general.

It began by undressing. Prisoners were ordered to strip naked, depriving them of the last shred of human dignity; they were to go to their death without even the illusive protection their striped prisoner's garb had afforded.

They were to die naked like Christ nailed to the cross. Their place of death was a cramped cell devoid of windows, light or any kind of protection against the cold. When ten prisoners were crammed into the cell, the SS-men cruelly joked: “You will die here like tulips!”

Death by starvation is one of the worst forms of death; the body gradually weakens but that does not decrease the feeling of hunger and the aggression caused by the lack of food. Apathy and drowsiness follow, vision and perception disorders sometimes occur and, finally, after two to six weeks, the victim dies. It is a cruel and painful death, often preceded by a total loss of consciousness. So great was the suffering that some died cursing.

But this time it was different. From Father Kolbe's cell came the sounds of prayer, the jointly recited rosary, Marian hymns and sermons delivered by the Franciscan. “I had the impression I was in a church,” said Bruno Borgowiec, who at that time served as an interpreter in the penal block, recalling that prayerful mood. So fervent were the prayers that the prisoners frequently did not hear the SS-men approaching and only their shouts would interrupt the prayers. When the door opened some of the prisoners would crawl up to the Germans begging for water and bread. The response was a kick in the stomach which usually proved fatal. Father Kolbe meanwhile heard confessions at night, granted absolution and ministered to the dying.

The death of Father Maximilian has echoes of the charisma of St Francis of Assisi. He had died naked amidst his monastic brothers, whilst his spiritual disciple was sentenced to a naked death among nine strangers with whom he offered to die. That was not simple emulation or normal repetition but rather a symbolic return to that death and its actuation in a different time amongst different people. In the inhuman time of the Second World War—a time of two gigantic totalitarianisms—the emulator of St Francis died devoid of dignity and not amongst his brothers but amongst strangers. But he accepted death like his spiritual father did. There can be no doubt that, despite his immense suffering, Father Kolbe retained his tranquillity to the very end. When SS-men entered the cell for inspection or to collect additional corpses, they found him praying on his knees with a serene expression on his face. That even struck them as something entrancing. According to the testimony of Bruno Borgowiec, they repeated amongst themselves: “That priest here is quite the decent sort. We've never had anyone like him here.” 

Subsequent days passed. Those stronger and healthier than he died off one by one, but he just continued praying.

On August 14, the eve of the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Nazis got bored waiting for him to die. Most of the convicts had long since died, but four still survived in the cell. Three of them lay on the floor weakened by starvation, and Father Kolbe sat next to them constantly praying. The cell was needed for subsequent victims so it was decided to finish off the survivors. Their executioner was Hans Bock, prisoner number 5, a common criminal who served as senior block attendant at the camp hospital. It was he who injected the four prisoners with phenol. Father Kolbe extended his hand to him. The smile in anticipation of meeting his Heavenly Mother did not leave his face. After 386 hours in the death cell he was coming to the Blessed Virgin Mary whom he had waited his whole life to meet. Now he knew, as it had been promised to him, that he had obtained two crowns; he not only gave Mary his life and purity but also sacrificed his life.

We do not know what the final moments of his life were like, but we do have testimony about how his corpse was found. “Immediately after the SS-man left the executioner, I returned to the cell where I found Father Maximilian Kolbe in a sitting position leaning against the back wall with his eyes open and head slanting to one side. His clear, tranquil face was radiant,” Bruno Borgowiec recalled.St Maximilian Kolbe (Saint Paul the Apostle Church, Westerville, Ohio)

The sense of martyrdom

Word of his death spread through the camp, causing moral and spiritual shock.  Was that possible? “So can one after all find someone, a Pole, who gives not a piece of bread or a few spoonsful of soup from the bottom of the bowl but his life to save a fellow inmate?” asked Józef Stemler. “In the moral atmosphere of the camp that fact evoked a beneficial shock. Like the waves caused by a stone thrown into the water, that moral impulse spread from block to block, from room to room, from heart to heart. That shock changed people's hearts, restored hope and evoked faith in man. It bolstered the activities of a camp resistance group, a secret prisoners' organisation which from that moment on defined time as either 'before' and 'after' Father Maximilian's sacrifice. Some prisoners survived the camp thanks to that organisation's activities. But not many survived, only two out of hundred. I received that grace and was one of those two. Franciszek Gajowniczek not only survived but lived another 54 years,” Stemler recalled.

“Our saintly fellow prisoner, above all, saved our humanity. He was our spiritual shepherd in the starvation chamber. He lent his support, conducted prayers, granted absolution and escorted the dying to the great beyond with the Sign of the Cross. In those of us who had survived the selection he strengthened faith and hope.” Another Auschwitz prisoner, Michał Micherdziński, recalled: “Amid that destruction, terror and evil, he restored hope.” Marian Kołodziej, a fellow prisoner and author of the shocking Klisze pamięci which can be viewed at the Franciscan church of Harmeże.

The shock evoked by the death may be explained in different ways. Professor Anna Pawełczyńska, herself an Auschwitz prisoner, has emphasised that offering one's life and fidelity to the principle of “love your neighbour as yourself” was the greatest possible victory at the camp. In that way a person showed he could oppose his conditions, that his consciousness was not determined by his material status, and that the aggressors were unable to break his faith and will. His life was not shaped by the oppressors but by himself in cooperation with God.

But there is also a deeper, non-sociological, but rather theological dimension to the camp testimony of Father Maximilian Kolbe. A martyr, something strongly emphasised by Dariusz Karłowicz in Arcyparadoks śmierci (“Archparadox of Death”), in ancient Christianity was perceived as “the sensual manifestation of the Spirit”.

As someone from a different dimension, he [the martyr] proves the existence of the reality proclaimed by Christian teaching. In his person hope appears fulfilled: his body reveals the reality of resurrection, and the transfiguration of the soul manifests itself through freedom from fear, equilibrium of the spirit and love shown even towards one's oppressors, and he himself in the eyes of his brothers becomes like unto God.

The key to understanding the significance of Father Maximilian's sacrifice may well be the realisation that his martyrdom not only likened the monk to God but that it even more forcefully restored his humanity and helped others understand that they too could retain their dignity. That dimension of Father Kolbe's sacrifice has remained valid to this day since, in many different ways, people continue to be deprived of their personal dignity or pressured into renouncing it.

Maximilian's martyrdom reminds us of the values on which our own humanity should be built, instead of succumbing to the pressure of the trials and tribulations which every generation faces. “And no-one knows what sort of trial it will be and when it will occur,” wrote Anna Pawełczyńska.

Author: Tomasz P. Terlikowski

Source: “Rzeczpospolita”