By Fr. James McCurry, OFM Conv.
Nearly 30 years ago, before our friary in Ellicott City, Maryland, became the Shrine of St. Anthony that we all know today, it was a house of formation for friars starting Franciscan life. At that time, I brought there a very elderly gentleman from Poland, who had survived the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Mr. Francis Gajowniczek.
Among Mr. Gajowniczek’s fellow Polish prisoners at Auschwitz, was the Franciscan Friar, Father Maximilian Kolbe. Mr. Gajowniczek had been in the Polish underground resistance army and ended up in Auschwitz as a captured prisoner of war. When a fellow prisoner escaped in the summer of 1941, the Nazis chose 10 men from the escapee’s barracks to be executed in reprisal. In the ranks of those 600 or so men were Francis Gajowniczek and Maximilian Kolbe. Gajowniczek was one of the unlucky 10 to be chosen. He cried out, “What will happen to my wife and my children?” Moved by the plight of this father, Father Kolbe, stepped forward to the commandant and said, “I’d like to take that man’s place.”
Surprisingly, the substitution was allowed. Gajowniczek’s life was spared by the heroic gesture of Father Kolbe, who with the nine others was taken to their terrifying place of execution. They were all stripped naked and forced into a subterranean bunker that became known as the “Block of Death.” They were deprived of food and water. After two weeks, six of the 10 had died. Among the four still clinging to life was Father Kolbe. The Nazis hastened their deaths with carbolic acid injections.
…we heard songs and prayers emanating from the window of that bunker.
Forty-one years later, in 1982, St. Maximilian Kolbe was canonized a saint, the first to be given the title “Martyr of Charity.” Since that time, shrines and chapels have been dedicated to St. Maximilian all over the world. However, there exists no tomb, where pilgrims may honor this saint-martyr, seeking his heavenly intercession. At Auschwitz, all the victims, including Maximilian Kolbe, were cremated and their ashes were dumped in nearby marshes. No remains were left.
In the case of St. Maximilian, however, something did remain – a unique relic preserved by the Providence of God, namely, his beard. Here is how that happened. In 1930 when he went on mission to Japan, it was the custom for missionaries to grow long beards. Six years later, when he returned to Poland, he kept wearing the beard. After the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Father Kolbe wanted to carry on his large publishing ministry as long as possible during the Nazi occupation. In order to buy time before the Nazis shut down his presses, he decided he would be more inconspicuous without the beard. Against Fr. Kolbe’s wishes, the friar-barber who shaved his beard actually kept it! Those precious hairs from his beard are now the only existing relics from St. Maximilian’s earthly remains.
Why would we honor hairs from the beard of a holy man like Maximilian? You can still visit Auschwitz, which is now a museum. You can descend the same steps to the starvation bunker in which St. Maximilian died. Why did Maximilian offer his life there? He did not simply want to save the life of Mr. Gajowniczek. He wanted, as a friar, and as a priest, to minister to those other nine who were condemned. Think of it!
In Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 25, Jesus said, “I was hungry. You gave me to eat. I was thirsty. You gave me to drink. I was naked. You clothed me. I was homeless. You sheltered me. I was sick and in prison, you visited me.” Maximilian went into that bunker because those other nine condemned were hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick, imprisoned! Maximilian understood that by ministering to them, he was ministering to Jesus – the hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick, imprisoned Jesus! To those prisoners in the starvation bunker, Maximilian demonstrated that Jesus feeds our hungers and quenches our thirst, that Jesus clothes us with Himself, shelters us in His home which is the Kingdom, and heals and frees us from whatever holds us captive. Maximilian taught his bunker mates that Jesus shared their plight, and that Jesus was present with them.
I have interviewed scores of survivors of Auschwitz and asked them to tell me what happened while Maximilian was in that bunker. The gist of their testimony was this: “You wouldn’t believe it. Instead of hearing the usual moans and groans and shrieks and cries and curses, we heard songs and prayers emanating from the window of that bunker. We heard the rosary. We heard hymns to Our Lady.” Maximilian turned that horrible death cell of Auschwitz into a prayer cell, and it became an oasis of love.
Today, long after World War II and the Nazi monstrosities, we scarcely remember the names of those leaders at Auschwitz who tormented the poor prisoners, but we do remember that little friar-prisoner with the number 16670 stitched on his uniform and tattooed on his arm. Maximilian Kolbe demonstrated that love triumphs over hate. That is why Pope John Paul II declared him a saint: because in our troubled and difficult centuries, we need witnesses who show that good triumphs over evil and that love conquers hate.
I shall never forget how Mr. Gajowniczek ended his final talk on his last visit to America. He said, “Saint Maximilian Kolbe did not die just for me. He died for all of you – to show all of you that love without limits is possible. They burned his body, but his ashes have spread to the ends of the world.” He used the ashes of Maximilian as a metaphor for the saint’s lesson of love without limits. I hope that every one of you will be inspired by his witness to keep practicing that charity – without limits. †
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