It takes extraordinary courage to act in the moment of crisis. It takes a different kind of courage to endure unending suffering.
St. Maximilian Kolbe had both.
Many Catholics are familiar with this Holocaust saint’s courage in the moment of crisis: standing in line at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp in July 1941, the commandant was picking at random prisoners to be executed in retaliation for a successful escape attempt. One of the chosen cried out that he was leaving behind a wife and children.
Kolbe stepped forward.
“Let me take his place,” he said.
Kolbe displayed true heroic courage in that moment of crisis.
But he was not killed right away. Kolbe, whose feast day is tomorrow, was instead sent with the other condemned to the Bunker—airless underground cells where prisoners were left to die of thirst and starvation in the darkness.
Kolbe was called to the courage of endurance.
He not only endured, he also encouraged those suffering with him. One Polish janitor later described the scene:
When no SS men were in the Block I went to the Bunker to talk to the men and comfort them. Fervent prayers and songs to the Holy Mother resounded in all the corridors of the Bunker. I had the impression I was in a church. Fr. Kolbe was leading and the prisoners responded in unison (cited here).
Days passed. Then weeks. And yet, Kolbe persevered:
Fr. Kolbe bore up bravely; he did not beg and did not complain but raised the spirits of the others…. Since they had grown very weak, prayers were now only whispered. At every inspection, when almost all the others were now lying on the floor, Fr. Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the center as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men.
In the end, after three weeks, only Kolbe was left.
His life had become an inconvenience to the SS guards who needed the space for more prisoners, according to the janitor’s account. It took an injection of carbolic acid in his arm to end his earthly life.
The janitor refused to look on during the execution. But afterwards, he caught a glimpse of the saint, leaning against the wall his face “radiant and calm.”
The Church teaches us to look at the lives of the saints as icons of Christ. Kolbe’s life and death certainly reflect such Christ-like radiance. Indeed, his final days mirror in many respects Christ’s Passion and death.
Standing in that line, Kolbe had already endured much.
Kolbe had arrived at Auschwitz in late May where he had been sentenced to hard labor: carrying heavy stones, tree trunks, and corpses. At one point he had been beaten severely and left for dead. And all this was on one lung—his other having succumbed to a bout with tuberculosis two decades before.
Kolbe had carried his cross in that monstrous first month in Auschwitz.
On that fated day in July, Kolbe’s natural reserves of energy would have been well depleted. His mental capacities, his judgment, his ability for clear thinking should have been compromised. But, drawing upon a hidden reservoir of supernatural strength, Kolbe offered Himself up in holy imitation of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
Christ died, descended to Hell, and had a three-day sojourn in the underworld.
In those dark, lifeless cells, Kolbe experienced his own ‘descent to hell.’
Kolbe’s death came as a result of ‘stepping out of line.’ In this, his death was like his life: Kolbe had always been driven to cross lines both fearsome and forbidden. As a child, he had a passion for science, drew up plans for a rocket ship, and even sought a patent for his invention. As a young man, he made an illegal border crossing into Austria-Hungary to enter the Conventual Franciscan junior seminary in Lwów (now in present-day Ukraine).
As an ordained priest, Kolbe traveled to Japan as a missionary, where he built a convent on the steep slopes of a mountain outside Nagasaki—much to the ridicule of the locals, according to this biography. He talked about God with Buddhist priests. Then he went to India.
But Kolbe crossed the biggest boundary of all when he took that step forward at Auschwitz.