Seventy-six years ago this week, Nazi prisoner 16670, a Polish priest named Maximilian Kolbe, died in a German concentration camp.
Kolbe had been sent to Auschwitz, perhaps the most notorious of the German death camps, in May of 1941 after his arrest by the Gestapo earlier that year.
Like so many of his countrymen, he had vehemently opposed the Nazi invasion in word and deed.
He denounced Nazi crimes in his spiritual newsletter and criticized Nazi tactics and ideology in illegal radio broadcasts.
After the Germans flooded into Poland, refugees flooded into his monastery, seeking sanctuary and safety. Kolbe helped to feed and clothe 3,000 of them — some 2,000 of whom were Jews.
Without hesitation, Kolbe hid them from the Nazis until the monastery was shuttered and he was arrested.
Throughout his life, Kolbe had felt a deep motivation to “fight for Mary” (the mother of Jesus) and to turn people to faith by spreading the Word of God.
Kolbe saw himself as a spiritual warrior, a soldier for God, and no place would stretch his faith more than Auschwitz.
The guards made him a particular target, frequently beating and mocking him or assigning him with impossible physical labors.
But according to accounts of fellow prisoners, Kolbe never flinched in the face of evil and never returned the hatred of his abusers.
That’s hard to imagine.
He instead retained his dignity and exhibited forgiveness and grace, relying on his faith for strength.
The “good God is everywhere and provides for everything with love,” he wrote to his mother shortly before his death.
In August, there was an alleged escape from the camp, and Nazi guards seeking to teach the prisoners a lesson selected 10 men for a terrible death — starvation in an underground bunker.
Kolbe was not one of those selected, but when Franciszek Gajowniczek, a stranger with a wife and family asked the guards for mercy, Kolbe granted it by volunteering to take his place.
Over the course of the next two weeks, Kolbe is said to have led his fellow prisoners in song and prayer. And when Kolbe failed to die despite his lack of food and water, he was injected with a lethal dose of carbolic acid.
Kolbe was made a saint in 1981 by Pope John Paul II. Gajowniczek, the man whose life he saved, attended his canonization.
It hardly seems a coincidence that the anniversary of Kolbe’s death followed a weekend during which a small but vocal group of neo-Nazis espoused the same fanatical beliefs that perpetuated the murders of Kolbe and millions of innocents, and covered the world in darkness for a few long years.
The events of Charlottesville, shamefully described by President Donald Trump, are accurately understood by the vast majority of Americans regardless of political affiliation.
Hate, in its most raw and vulgar manifestation, was on display in the streets of an otherwise peaceful college town. It claimed the life of a young woman.
But the gracious response — the necessary response — to Charlottesville, as individuals and as a nation, regardless of what our feckless leader does or does not say, is not more of the same.
Not more vile social media posts, spewing hate and foul language. Not more shaming people whose comments on the weekend’s events didn’t display the “appropriate” amount of outrage.
Silence is not the answer — we must be clear about what happened and why it is wrong — but neither is gratuitous rhetoric that serves no good and furthers divisions.
Would it ask too much to find within each of us, a spark of Kolbe’s unrelenting faith in human kindness, of his inextinguishable fire for mercy and love?
People will take what they want from Kolbe’s biography. They will find inspiration in his Nazi resistance.
But the true message of his life is hope in humanity, forgiveness for enemies and self-sacrificial love for strangers.
Kolbe was declared the patron saint of the 20th century.
His example should make him a saint for all the ages, our current age most especially.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at email@example.com.
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