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There is No Greater Love

When members of my family toured Poland several years ago, one of the stops on the itinerary was the former Nazi death camp known as Auschwitz-Birkenau. Going there was one of those experiences that can permanently change one’s perception of historical events. What previously had been only words on pages and two-dimensional images in photographs and films became tangible realities.
The impact Auschwitz had on some visitors was overwhelming. Several folks sobbed, for example, when they were confronted with a mound of human hair shaved from the heads of prisoners, or a pile of shoes, or a heap of suitcases still bearing the names of human beings for whom life had ended here.
Going to such a place means facing one of the most profound examples of human depravity in the history of the world. “How could they?” one woman choked through her sobs. “How could they?”
And yet, this same place, this so-called labor camp whose name is synonymous with cruelty, is a memorial to a sublime act of generosity and self-sacrifice that the Church recalls on August 14 when it honors St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe, a Polish priest, who died at Auschwitz on that date in 1941.
St. Maximilian, who was born Rajmund Kolbe in 1894, was a Conventual Franciscan friar who was highly educated in philosophy and theology. He was particularly devoted to the Immaculate Virgin Mary. He founded a monastery near Warsaw and another in Japan, a radio station, and a variety of other organizations and publications.
During World War II, St. Maximilian sheltered Polish refugees, including about 2,ooo Jewish people whom he concealed from the Nazis. Meanwhile, he condemned the Nazis via amateur radio broadcasts. In February 1941, he was arrested and eventually he was incarcerated at Auschwitz.
Survivors of the camp testified that the priest did what he could to assist the other inmates, sharing his food with them or sometimes going without food at all, hearing confessions, comforting the men with prayers and hymns.
In July of 1941, a prisoner who lived in the same barracks as St. Maximilian disappeared and was incorrectly thought to have escaped. In typical Nazi fashion, the camp authorities picked 10 men from the same barracks to be starved to death as a means of discouraging others from fleeing.
One of those chosen was Polish army Sgt. Franciszek Gajowniczek, who had been arrested for helping the Jewish resistance in Poland. Because Gajowniczek had a wife and children, St. Maximilian proposed to the Nazis that he be allowed to take the sergeant’s place. The Nazis agreed, and St. Maximilian and the other condemned men were consigned to a kind of dungeon—which we were shown during the tour—where he languished until he was near death and was killed with a lethal injection.
St. Maximilian Kolbe was beatified in 1971 by Pope Paul VI and canonized in 1982 by Pope John Paul II, both in the presence of Franciszek Gajowniczek, who had spent nearly five and a half years at Auschwitz before it was liberated and visited the camp every year thereafter on August 14 until his death at the age of 94.
So while this grim place has been preserved to remind us of the worst possibilities of human behavior, it also memorializes the best by reminding us of what can happen when someone lives by the words of Jesus: “This is my commandment to you, that you love one another.’’


Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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