Nine years ago I travelled to Poland; while there, I visited Auschwitz. That came to mind today, August 14, because this day marks the day that a saint, Father Maximillian Kolbe, was murdered by the Nazis. I went to the very cell where that atrocity occurred, and this was my reflection to family and friends back home:
Our next morning was extremely sobering as we went to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II/Birkenau concentration camps. I'm finding it difficult to find the words to describe the experience of walking around a place built for such evil. It was gut-wrenching.
We were shown how the SS viewed everything about the Jews and other prisoners as a commodity and refused to let anything go to waste. They used clothes for soldiers and other Germans; they used hair for socks, felt stockings, and yarn; they used even human ashes from the ovens for fertilizer. Human life was viewed as disposable, an object to be used or discarded.
Two images stand out in my mind in particular: 1) a newborn baby's white knitted sweater amidst rows of clothes and 2) piles of medical aids (crutches, leg braces, etc). Children?! Sick people?! It is impossible to understand how they could harm anyone, but one is especially bewildered at how they could attack the most weak and vulnerable.
At the entry to one of the buildings, the museum placed this quote by George Santayana, "The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again."
And this is how, regrettably, the tragedy of the Holocaust lives on. While society may remember the specific event of the Holocaust, it seems to forget the philosophy behind it. When we fail to recognize the inherent dignity of human life, when we persist in considering the sick and the young (pre-born) as a burden, an inconvenience, or as having a low quality of life (the Nazis believed in “lives unworthy of life”) then our society maintains the very mentality that drove the SS to such destruction.
LIGHT AMIDST DARKNESS
This is why a Polish man who lived during the time of the Holocaust is such an inspiration to me: St. Maximillian Kolbe. He was God's gift to a dark world, bringing an example and a message of hope for “such as a time as this.”
One of the most emotional moments at Auschwitz I was at Building 11 (execution block), cell 18, the cement basement cell where Father Kolbe was killed, a priest who freely offered to take the place of a fellow prisoner who had been sentenced to death. For two weeks Kolbe sat cold and naked without food or water. He helped calm those within the cell and surrounding ones by singing and praying. The museum made a memorial to Kolbe in that cell and tells his story by saying the following: “Within concentration camps there were some resistance movements that were organized. We tell Kolbe's story because he showed the greatest resistance to the Nazis: by staying human.”
In preparation for that trip, I had read a book about St. Kolbe called A Man for Others, by Patricia Treece. In it is this powerful quote from Saint Kolbe, worth remembering on this day in particular:
“When grace fires in our hearts, it stirs up in them a true thirst for suffering...to show...to what extent we love Our Heavenly Father..for it is only through suffering that we learn how to love...In suffering and persecution [we]...reach a high degree of sanctity and, at the same time...bring our persecutors to God.”