Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Man in Striped Pajamas


Do you know the story of Maximilian Kolbe? This statue of him is in Chrzanów in Poland.

Why is he wearing striped pajamas? Because that was his prison uniform. He was prisoner 16670 in Auschwitz where he died on 14 august 1941. 

Like many others who died in that camp he wasn't Jewish. He was a Christian, a Roman Catholic friar from Poland. His father was of German ethnic origin and his mother Polish. 

With others at his friary in Niepokalanów during the Nazi occupation gave shelter to huge numbers of war refugees from greater Poland. He helped hide thousands of Jews. As a result he was arrested and sent to Auschwitz.

One day when 3 prisoners escaped Karl Fritzsch, the deputy camp commander selected 10 men to be killed by starvation as a reprisal and a deterrent. Franciszek Gajowniczek was one of the 10 selected to die. He began to cry:
"My wife! My children! I will never see them again!"
Father Kolbe had no wife or children, but he had compassion. He offered to die in the other man's place.  This offer was accepted, perhaps because he was older than the one he asked to be spared who could be more useful for slave labour. Fr. Kolbe was led with the other nine to the underground bunker of the 'death block', Building 13.

According to Wikipedia, in the starvation cell, he celebrated Mass each day and sang hymns. He led the other condemned men in song and prayer. Whenever the guards checked on him (to see if he was dead yet) he would be standing or kneeling in the cell, looking calmly at those who entered. Within a short time of dehydration and starvation, 2 or 3 weeks, only Kolbe still lived. The guards needed the bunker to be emptied, so they killed Kolbe by lethal injection.

Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man whose death place Kolbe voluntarily took, survived the death camp, was reunited with his wife, lived to old age and died in 1995. 

The Roman Catholic church has recognized Kolbe as a Christian saint and martyr, but not without controversy. The Church of England commemorates him today as Friar and Martyr. Above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London are statues of ten 20th century martyrs and Kolbe is among them. He's the one on the left.

In Standing Up and Being Counted Digitalnun has a brief reflection today in which she expresses some of her former unease at Kolbe's canonization. She ends with these words,
Maximilian’s death in that sweltering bunker was horrible; but it taught others how to live. He gave his life freely because Christ had given His life for him. And incidentally, he made one English nun rethink the way she views martyrdom.


Image Credits: Polish statue Wikimedia Commons, public domain
                       Westminster Abbey Statue Wikimedia Commons, CC Licence

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