|Saint Maximilian Kolbe, OFM Conv.|
Raymond Kolbe was born January 8 1894 in a section of Poland then occupied by and ruled by Russia. His father was an ethnic German (and the name was Kolb) and his mother, Polish. He had three siblings, only one of whom lived to adulthood. His father was arrested and executed by the Russians shortly before Maximilian was ordained a priest because he, the father, was involved in the movement for Polish independence and nationhood. From his childhood Raymond was inculcated with a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Kolbe and his elder brother, Francis, in 1907 fled Russian dominated Poland to Lvov in the Austrian ruled Polish Ukraine where they entered the novitiate of the Conventual Franciscans. Kolbe was sent on to study in Rome where he earned doctorates in both Theology and Philosophy.
During his time in Rome he witnessed a massive demonstration by the Italian Freemasons against the Church and attacking the Pope, Pius X, personally. Demonstrators filled Saint Peter’s Square—then part of Italy—with blasphemous banners and shouting obscene slogans. All this needs to be put into the context of Italian independence and the virulent anti-Catholicism of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian George Washington, a Mason and freethinker who hated the Church and papacy. Italian Freemasons were a noisy minority more inspired by a hatred of organized religion than the principles of Freemasonry, but for Kolbe the Freemasons became the bogeyman of evil attempting to destroy the Church.
This experience of Freemasonry in Italy led Kolbe on his return to Poland to organize the “Militia of the Immaculate,” a movement of Polish laity to combat the influence of Freemasonry. The battle with Freemasonry became the organizing principle of Kolbe’s life. Don’t misunderstand Kolbe’s conservativism— Kolbe was a thoroughly modern man and used the modern media in his battle against Freemasonry. He opened a publishing house that printed catechisms and other instructional materials as well as devotional tracts, he had a daily newspaper with a quarter million readers, and a monthly magazine that had a million subscribers. He also used the radio in his attempts to reach an audience. He had two passions: for the Blessed Mother and against Freemasonry.
Unfortunately, Kolbe and other anti-Freemasons often slid into anti-Semitism. European Freemasonry in the late 19th and early 20th century included many secular Jews precisely because Freemasonry advocated an intellectual and scholarly freedom of thought that more conservative religious voices—orthodox rabbis as well as Catholic theologians—feared. Freemasonry was the voice of secular intellectualism and embraced the ideas of Spinoza, Rousseau, Hume, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, Ingersoll, Einstein and others. By no means were all Freethinkers Jews but secular Jews were prominent among Freethinkers and this undermined the hopes of many Poles not simply for an independent Poland but the restoration of Catholic Poland, and not only Catholic Poland but a Marian Poland.
Anti-Semitism is woven into the Polish Catholic culture going back for centuries. It is not that many Catholic Poles did not have good relationships with their Jewish fellow Poles. (One cannot say neighbors because for the most part Jews and Gentiles lived in separate communities, even when in the same cities and there was not much contact between Christians and religious (orthodox) Jews. One of my favorite sites in Krakow is Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter. When one goes there now one sees the desolation created by the Holocaust: the elegant synagogues now museums of a vanished, slaughtered, culture.) Nevertheless, many Polish Catholics and many Polish Jews, at least among those who were integrated into mainstream Polish society, were friends. Jerzy Kluger and Karol Wojtyla, later John Paul II, were boyhood friends and that was not unusual. But in the Polish tradition there were stories and legends and songs of the blood libel, there were depictions in stone and stained glass of Jews murdering Christian children, bedtime stories and campfire tales made Jews out to be bogeymen and monsters. Kolbe was not conscious of this flaw in the culture and often reinforced it in his attempts to discredit those he saw as enemies of the Church.
Kolbe’s work brought the Conventual Franciscans to prominence in Poland and the number of vocations enabled them to open missions in Japan where Kolbe served for several years in the 1930’s—but his publishing work was too important for him to be away for long. Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941 for—among other things—sheltering Jews in his monastery. He was sent to Auschwitz.
Now Auschwitz was actually four main camps and 45 satellite camps. Kolbe was sent to Auschwitz I. This must be differentiated from Auschwitz II or Birkenau which was primarily an extinction camp where prisoners were normally held only until they could be gassed. Auschwitz I was primarily for long-term prisoners. While, there are exceptions Jews normally were marked for extinction; Poles were held in Auschwitz I and kept for forced labor. The two camps, by the way, are remarkably different. While Birkenau was a massive complex of wooden barracks in which those Jews were held who were not to be gassed immediately but worked to death, wooden barracks that were no more than huge shacks that did not even keep out the cold and which held hundreds of slave-prisoners, Auschwitz I was an orderly village of well-built brick structures which housed the prisoners. In Auschwitz I There were trees and stone-lined avenues among the barracks. It was by no means a pleasant place but it wasn’t the architecture of despair and death that marked Birkenau. Of course most of those sent to Auschwitz II or Birkenau were gassed immediately.
In Auschwitz I Kolbe was put to work as were the rest of the prisoners. He was only there about five months when three prisoners escaped. As a warning to other prisoners, ten men were selected to be put in a starvation bunker where they would die a slow and painful death of hunger. One of the ten, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out “O, my wife, my children!” Kolbe stepped forward and asked to replace the family man.
Kolbe lasted two weeks without food or water. He kept up the courage of the other prisoners by singing with them and telling them stories as well as giving them the reassurances of our Christian faith. Finally he alone was left alive—barley alive. A nurse was sent into the cell to give him an injection of Carbolic Acid. It was August 14th, the vigil of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Kolbe’s canonization was not without controversy. Anti-Semitic passages from his magazine and newspaper were cited. John Paul II was passionately determined to advance the cause of his fellow Pole however. The anti-Semitic tone of some of his writings needs to be balanced against his actions which not only show no trace of animosity towards Jews but a recognition of the human dignity of all people regardless of race or creed. The anti-Semitism found in Polish culture was woven into his personality much as racism has become part of the warp and woof of American culture. It is a reminder to us all to be very critical of our cultural assumptions and examine our own words to see when they betray prejudices of which we are not consciously aware. Paula Deen isn’t the only racist in America. Far from it.
Kolbe was devoted to the Virgin Mary and is devotion to her can be said to have marked his spirituality far more profoundly than his Franciscanism. While they are not, of course, mutually exclusive, in our next entry we will look at Saint Francis and see what he brought to the Church. The Franciscans of the Immaculate are far more disciples of Maximilian Kolbe than they are of Francis of Assisi. That is not a problem but it needs to be noted.