St. Maximilian Kolbe, Pray for Us
Arbeit Macht Frei — work makes you free.
So says the main gate at Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Oswiecim, Poland. Of course, the sign makes a tragically ironic statement, as thousands were literally worked to death inside these gates.
One who transcended the irony and proved the maxim true was St. Maximilian Kolbe, whose ‘work’ here freed his own soul and, potentially, those of countless others who have been moved by his story.
I knew little about this great Polish saint before going to Auschwitz this February. I traveled with a group of college students on a ‘peace pilgrimage’ to southern Poland. What better spot to pray for peace than the setting for the most horrendous example of the evils of war?
I have to be honest: I did not want to see Auschwitz or any concentration camp. I've seen war movies and holocaust pictures; I've read books on Hitler's ‘master plan’ and the atrocities he perpetrated in pursuit of his mad dreams. I wasn't interested in viewing any of this firsthand.
But then I learned a bit about St. Maximilian Kolbe. The Franciscan priest on our tour explained that St. Maximilian's focus was love, that this was the real essence of the man. I would see, promised our priest, that St. Maximilian's way proved that love is far more powerful than hate.
The snow was falling as our bus pulled up to the State Museum in Oswiecim, better-known as Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Once out of the visitors center, I was hit by the absolute stillness, the deathly silence of the place. The snow muffled my footsteps as I wandered the camp. The barbed wire and ‘Halt/Stoj!’ signs, with a black skull-and-crossbones, dramatically reminded me of the purpose of this ‘museum.’
Signs in Polish, English and other languages explained what I was seeing — the gallows erected near the roll-call area for hanging prisoners who helped others escape, the crematorium and gas chambers for gassing or burning hundreds of thousands, the ‘death wall’ for shooting prisoners. This is a living example of the phrase, ‘man's inhumanity to man.’
At the very back of the camp — past all the brick barracks where an average of 13,000 to 16,000 prisoners were housed at a time — I found what I was searching for. The last block of the camp. Here is Block 11, the ‘Death Block.’
Forced to Fast
Here is where St. Maximilian sacrificed his life so that another prisoner (a husband with children) could live. Here is where he was locked, naked, in a basement cell with nine others and given no food or drink. Here is where he worked to keep up the spirits of his cell-mates. Here is where he prayed and ministered, ignoring the abuses of the guards. Here is where he and his cellmates could hear fellow prisoners shot at the ‘death wall’ right outside the small cell window. Here is where, still praying after three weeks of deprivation, he raised his left arm for the fatal injection. Here is where St. Maximilian Kolbe did his final work for God.
This cell now has a lit victory candle and bouquets of flowers. It is a holy place, a place of prayer.
The stillness and peace of the cell gave me a glimpse of this ‘hero of Auschwitz.’ A church-like atmosphere reigned here in this dark and dank basement. In Cell 21, perpendicular to St. Maximilian's cell, there are scratchings in the wall that show Christ on the cross and Christ's Sacred Heart, scratchings made by a Polish officer at the time of St. Maximilian's internment in Cell 18. Cell 18 is the peace of Auschwitz — a reminder that God lives even in a place of such unspeakable evil.
Who is this man who would be beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1971 and canonized by John Paul II in 1982?
Raymond Kolbe, born in a small Polish town in 1894, was an unre-markable boy whose mother despaired of him ever being able to stay out of trouble. At 10 years old, this future saint prayed to the Blessed Mother, asking her what would become of him. In a dream he saw Mary holding out two crowns — the white crown of purity and the red crown of martyrdom. When the Mother of God asked Raymond which he would choose, he chose both. He joined the Conventual Franciscans at 16, choosing the name Maximilian.
As a priest, Father Maximilian obtained two doctorates — in philosophy and theology — but never lost his love and reverence for the Mother of God. In fact, with six others, he founded the Knights of the Immaculata, a group dedicated to Mary Immaculate as a tool for the conquest of souls. In his own words, it was to be ‘… a movement that must enthuse souls, snatch them from Satan, and, won for the cause of the Immaculata, incite them to the apostolate of making the reign of Jesus Christ a reality.’
After a few years, he was given a plot of land near Warsaw, on which he built the ‘City of the Immaculata.’ Here he and his brother priests could do the work of this great apostolate. Niepokalanow, as it is in Polish, is a priory built to help spread devotion to the Blessed Mother and defend the Catholic faith through modern media. Still a Franciscan priory, this shrine is 23 miles west of Warsaw and may be visited throughout the year.
Zeal for Souls
Continuing in his vocation as a Franciscan, Father Maximilian traveled to Japan to convert souls. For six years he worked and prayed with the Japanese. Called back to Poland in 1936, he was appointed superior of the ‘City of the Immaculata.’ Three years later, Germany conquered Poland and deported him and 36 of his brother priests to a prison near Berlin. Released in 1940, he was again arrested and interred in Pawiak jail in Warsaw in February 1941.
On May 28, 1941, Father Maximilian was one of 321 prisoners transferred to Auschwitz.
Father Maximilian spent the next 10 weeks on heavy-labor squads. His chronic tuberculosis and poor nutrition never stopped him from his missionary zeal. He spent his time preaching to his fellow prisoners about the love of God and the beauty of offering pain and suffering to Jesus. He loudly, and proudly, proclaimed himself a Catholic priest and willingly suffered all humiliations and violence heaped on him by his Nazi guards.
Once, he was tortured so brutally that he had to be sent to the camp's infirmary. One of his fellow prisoners later testified that Father Maximilian often said, ‘For Jesus Christ I am prepared to suffer still more.’
Stories abound about his many kindnesses — giving his bread to others, exhorting the men to bear up, always giving to others, allowing others to be served first. One prisoner explained that Father Maximilian whispered to him, ‘Hate is not creative; love is creative. Our sorrow is necessary that those who live after us may be happy.’
At the end of my visit to Auschwitz, I realized that the right kind of work does indeed make you free. St. Maximilian Kolbe preached love and peace, suffering for Jesus, the belief and trust in God's providence and, of course, his confidence in the Blessed Mother's many graces. It took another four years for the evil of Auschwitz to end. But the work done there for God indeed made many people free.
Thanks in no small part to St. Maximilian, this is the true and everlasting message of Auschwitz. It is a message our world, poised on the brink of war, needs to hear right now.
Mary C. Gildersleeve writes from Gaming, Austria.
- March 9-15, 2003