Today, August 14, is the Feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe.
Fr. Kolbe was a Franciscan friar who ran a radio station and a number of publications especially dedicated to promoting devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Fr. Kolbe also founded a monastery of Niepokalanow near Warsaw, which sheltered Jews during the Nazi occupation of Poland.
Kolbe is most famous, of course, for his offering his life in place of another man who was chosen for execution at a Nazi concentration camp.
On February 17, 1941, German troops invaded and shut down St. Kolbe’s monastery. Kolbe had been printing anti-German articles in his publications. The monastery also served as a local hospital and sheltered 2000 Jews from persecution. Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the Pawiak prison. On May 28, he was transferred to Auschwitz.
Kolbe continued to minister as a priest to his fellow prisoners, which led to his being beaten and lashed a number of times. Toward the end of July of 1941, three prisoners escaped. Karl Fritzsch, the SS commander of Auschwitz, decided to choose ten prisoners to execute by starvation to dissuade others from attempting to escape. He chose Franciszek Gajowniczek as one of the ten. Gajowniczek began to cry out, “My wife! My children!” In response, Fr. Kolbe volunteered himself as a replacement for the distraught husband and father, and the Nazis were only too happy to execute a Catholic priest.
For two weeks, the prisoners were starved. Finally, only Fr. Kolbe was left. Wanting to free up the bunker, the Nazis injected Fr. Kolbe with carbolic acid, killing him. His remains were cremated the next day, August 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary.
There was some controversy over Kolbe’s canonization. First, there were accusations of anti-Semitism, accusations that were quickly condemned by survivors of the Holocaust and by those who knew Kolbe and of his ministering to and sheltering Jews. Then, there was the question of whether or not he was a martyr. Martyrs, traditionally, are those who die for the faith. Kolbe made a heroic, saintly sacrifice in offering himself as substitute for a man who was a husband and father (and who, ultimately, survived the war and attended Kolbe’s canonization Mass!). But, was his murder an act of hostility to the faith? Pope St. John Paul II answered that question at his canonization when he declared that the Nazi philosophy of systemic hatred toward whole groups of humanity was itself an act of hatred of religion and Christian faith.
St. John Paul’s distinction is good to remember in these days when our own country has been rocked by violence perpetrated by racist organizations, among them neo-Nazis. The systemic hatred of whole groups of humanity is itself an act of hatred toward religion, in general, and Christianity, in particular. There is nothing that Christianity has in common with a political and social ideology that regards those made in the image of God as enemies of the State by virtue of their racial and ethnic identity. In short, one cannot be a Christian and a Nazi.
St. Maximilian Kolbe died at the hands of a National Socialist regime. It would be good to remember him today and all those who were, and are, victims of Nazi oppression.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us!
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.