A saint’s place in Auschwitz
Last fall during a European road trip, my husband Joe and I visited Poland as we meandered through several countries, from Italy into Eastern Europe.
A frightening border-stop from Austria into the Czech Republic was an odd foreboding. From nowhere, a police-guard screamed, “PULL OVER!” demanding our papers and destination. Rifle in hand, he leered in at us, then languished checking with his ‘authorities.’ He’s got all our I.D., I thought. “GO ON!” he finally shrieked, shoving our papers back. We sped off like refugees.
Settling in at the Czestochowa Shrine in southern Poland, a priest- friend there suggested we consider a day trip to nearby Auschwitz. “You really shouldn’t miss it,” he said.
We hesitated at visiting the stunning WWII death camp we’d only glimpsed in documentaries. But we felt drawn to go. Joe’s grandparents were from Poland. We would get a close-up of the war-plight of those not lucky enough to have left – like our families had – before the horrific holocaust.
As we drove down the Polish highway on that overcast October day, little green signs for ‘Oświęcim’ (town where Auschwitz camp is located) repeated a creepy graphic. We felt a mounting reticence.
We parked, forgot about lunch, and walked the gravelly mud path toward the curved-iron “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes you free”) entrance archway. I hated that sign. Clusters of visitors lumbered among the maroon-brick buildings spiked with ominous chimneys. No one spoke and no birds were heard in the lush treelines – only crunching footsteps in an icy drizzle. Was it like this as they’d shuffled toward their fate?
Going into the starvation block where Polish priest and martyr St. Maximilian Kolbe was put to death in August 1941, we descended narrow concrete steps toward his cell containing a tall candle beside an etched bronze memorial, with one red rose on the floor. We were frozen in time.
When SS guards had randomly chosen 10 prisoners to die as ‘payment’ for three escapees, one chosen cried out, ‘My wife! My children! What will they do?’ Forty-seven-year-old Maximilian stepped forward saying, ‘I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.’ The Nazi commandant laughed, then acquiesced and returned Franciszek Gajowniczek to his place. Gajowniczek later recalled: ‘I could only thank him with my eyes.’
Fr. Kolbe was thrown down these concrete steps, to starve in this dark airless cell for two weeks. The entire time, he encouraged his nine cellmates with Christ’s teachings, and they were heard in loud prayer, rosary and singing, which neighboring prisoners also joined. Bruno Borgowiec, a janitor eyewitness of Kolbe’s last days recalls: ‘…Their fervent prayers resounded in all the corridors of the bunker. I had the impression I was in a church.’
Kolbe survived the longest, after which one of the SS guards remarked: “This priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him.”
CHRISTINE VALENTINE-OWSIK is Legatus magazine’s Managing Editor.