We face tough choices every day.
We can make the best of the day or we can curse the sun for rising up over the horizon. We can react positively to life’s little annoyances or we can let them lead us down a trap of frantic frustration. We can put others first or we can think of no one, but our three best friends—me, myself, and I.
When I struggle to see the good in people, when I’m fed up with the selfishness, I find that I think often about a simple polish priest who put others first when it mattered most and lived decades before I was a distant glimmer in my mother’s eye.
I’m talking, of course, about Saint Maximillian Kolbe. For those unfamiliar with Kolbe, he was a Franciscan friar, who dreamed of becoming a mighty military leader, but when he saw that God wanted him to fight a different kind of war, bringing hearts and minds closer to God, he put the dream of being a soldier out of his head.
Here’s why I think of Kolbe:
He could have looked the other way, but he didn’t. When the Nazi Germans invaded Poland in 1939, he was arrested and interrogated. He was released, but not before he was offered the chance to sign the Deutsche Volksliste, a paper which would have recognized his ethnic German ancestry and given him rights similar to those of German citizens.
Instead, he refused.
When released, he dedicated himself to protecting others. He went back to the friary that he had established and provided shelter to more than 2,000 Jews fleeing German persecution. In addition, he continued to publish religious works and a number of anti-Nazi German publications
He could have kept under the radar and hidden from view. No one would have blamed Kolbe for watching his back and taking the safer route, but he wasn’t that kind of man.
He could have avoided death. By February 17, 1941, the German Gestapo had had enough. They shut the monastery down, arrested Kolbe, and sent him to the Pawiak Prison in Warsaw. Three months later, he was transferred to the Auschwitz in Southern Poland.
Kolbe had been there only a short time in late July, when several prisoners escaped from the camp, prompting the acting commander to pick ten men to be starved to death in a bunker to deter future escape attempts. When one of the selected men cried out, “My wife! My children!”, Kolbe didn’t look away or keep his mouth shut. Instead, he stepped forward and volunteered to take the stranger’s place.
The prisoners were taken to the bunker where Kolbe led them in prayer and consoled in their time of need. Most of the men died from starvation and dehydration within a few weeks. Kolbe and three other men were all that remained. The Germans wanted the bunker emptied, so they gave Kolbe and the others a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Kolbe is said to have raised his arm and calmly waited for the deadly injection. He died on August 14 and his remains were cremated on August 15.
He was only 47 years old.
And he left a mark. Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man Kolbe saved from the bunker, was sent to another concentration camp later in 1951. After spending more than five years in Nazi camps, he was liberated in 1945 and was later reunited with his wife, Helena. His sons sadly had been killed earlier that year.
When Gajowniczek visited the St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church in Houston in 1994, commemorating Kolbe’s Sainthood, he said that “so long as he … has breath in his lungs, he would consider it his duty to tell people about the heroic act of love.” He died in 1995 at the age of 93.
It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not; Catholic or Protestant; Christian or Jew or Muslim; Black or White; Male or Female; a have or a have-not; the way we carry ourselves matters. I think of my own life: What are the choices I make? Will I stand for others less fortunate? Will I care for my fellow man? Will I see the good when all else says things are bad?
No matter what, I’ll say a prayer today thanking God for Saint Maximilian Kolbe and his sacrifice and example.
A few closing thoughts that inspire me:
- “The most deadly poison of our time is indifference.”
- “Let us remember that love lives through sacrifice and is nourished by giving…Without sacrifice there is no love.”
- “A single act of love makes the soul return to life.”
- “Don’t ever forget to love.”
—Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941)