Sunday, November 05, 2006

Maximilian Kolbe

This is an excerpt from Michael Nagler's book, The Seach for a Nonviolent Future (Inner Ocean, 2004, 103-106). its an inspiring example of satyagraha that i wanted to bring to your notice.

(excerpt begins)

"The Saint of Auschwitz

At Auschwitz one day during the summer of 1941, a polish prisoner from block 14 managed to escape. The routine punishment for such an event was to take the entire block, several hundred men who were themselves hanging onto life by a thread, and force them to stand at attention until the escapee was hunted down. If he were not found, ten others would be culled out and put in "the Bunker", a bare underground cell, without food or water, to slowly die. It was considered the worst thing that could happen to you at Auschwitz. Guards and prisoners alike strained to catch the occasional sounds from soldiers and dogs searching the surrounding swamp. Hours went by. Gestapo commandant Fritsch paced back on forth in front of them like a pendulum of doom. The miserable daily soup ration was brought out, but Fritsch ordered it poured down the drain before the eyes of the starving men. Finally, toward evening, the search was declared a failure. One after another, ten men were pulled out of formation to pay with their lives for one man's desperate escape. "Long live Poland!" shouted one; another, a father, broke down and wept, "My poor wife, my poor children. Goodbye, goodbye!"

Then, once more, an unheard-of thing happened: a prisoner stepped calmly out of line and started walking toward the comman­dant. For some reason, no one shot him; Commandant Fritsch instinctively pulled out his pistol but only shouted, "Who is this Polish Schwein?" Word shot around: it was him—Father Kolbe of Niepokalanow. For the last two years, Father Maximilian Mary Kolbe had been a living symbol of human endurance and dignity for the whole camp. Now he walked up to Commandant Fritsch and calmly said to him, in good German, "I have a request." When Fritsch recov­ered from the shock, he barked, "Well, what do you want?" and Kolbe quietly said, "I would like permission to die in place of one of these men." A priest was almost as low as a Jew in the grotesque ideology of the Nazis, and Fritsch scornfully granted the request, totally misun­derstanding its power. The husband and father who had wept, Sergeant Franciszek Gajowniczek, would live; after eight brutal days, Father Kolbe was put to death with an injection of gasoline. (Franciszek Gajowniczek died recently at the age of ninety-three in his home city of Brzeg, having testified at the papal institution of Kolbe as a Martyr of the Church).

We'd be justified to call this act the climax of Father Kolbe's spir­itual career. What was the effect of his final, unpremeditated sacrifice? What good did it do? Here is the testimony of an eyewitness, George Bielecki:

It was an enormous shock to the whole camp. We became aware someone unknown among us in this spiritual night . . . was raising the standard of love on high. Someone unknown, like everyone else, . . . went to a horrible death for the sake of someone not even related to him. Therefore it is not true, we cried, that humanity is cast down and trampled in the mud . . .. Thousands of prisoners were convinced the true world continued to exist and that our torturers would not be able to destroy it. ... To say that Father Kolbe died for one of us or that person's family is too great a simplification. His death was the salvation of thousands.

The "salvation of thousands" here is not metaphorical. For you and me, a mood swing up or down is not a matter of life or death, but to a prisoner at Auschwitz that is exactly what it was. As every doctor knows, when a person is critically ill, the will to live can make the difference between life and death, and in the death camps everyone was critically ill. A prisoner who lost his or her will to go on visibly collapsed and was generally dead within two weeks. It's quite possi­ble that thousands, not just Sergeant Gajowniczek, who would other­wise have died in that man-made hell, got the courage to live on, in some cases long enough to see the day of liberation.

So it seems that nonviolence did work against the Nazis—not to save Father Kolbe's life, of course (which wasn't his purpose), and not only to save the life of one other person (which was), but to release a forbidden ingredient—hope—into the nightmare of dehumanization in which the Nazis had tried to entangle the minds of millions.

This was done by a single man with no external resources what­ever, yet in a sense it was even more effective than the RosenstraBe demonstration that was carried out by 6,000 citizens who were tech­nically free. It is the degree of the sacrifice, not the number of the sacrificers, that gives a nonviolent act its power. Consider what Father Kolbe was up against. Hitler's stated ambition "to prepare a generation of young people devoid of a conscience, imperious, relentless, and cruel" had succeeded with many like the guards at Auschwitz, some of whom had been systematically dehumanized since they were children. But Father Kolbe had been systematically training himself since he was young. At Auschwitz he had endured extreme abuse without succumbing to hatred; he had intense faith that there was a supreme, compassionate reality behind all appearances, which in his case was Mary, the mother of God, and that reality was present even in his oppressors, though they were entirely unaware of it. He was, therefore, literally a match for them. His humanity was, to use a phrase of Gandhi's, 'mathematically proportionate' to their inhumanity."

(Excerpt ends.)

(A slightly different and more detailed description of Kolbe's life is also available at www.auschwitz.dk/Kolbe.htm Am wondering, if instead of just one, what if there were a 100 Kolbe's at Auschwitz? Would the Nazi juggernaut have been able to stand up to the incredible power of love? )


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