The Sublime Act of Sacrifice

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Sep 12, 2015

The Sublime Act of Sacrifice
“The most sublime act is to set another before you.” William Blake

Every time someone volunteers to step into harm’s way on behalf of another, we can’t help but to sit up and take notice. That happened recently when three young American tourists and a Briton overpowered a gunman on a packed train going from Amsterdam to Paris.

Today I want to tell you of another such hero, Father Maximilian Kolbe. He was born on January 8, 1874, the second son of a poor weaver near Lodz, Poland. After becoming a Franciscan monk in 1910, and ordained in 1919, he built a friary just west of Warsaw that eventually housed 762 Franciscans. 

In 1930, he went to Asia where he founded friaries in Nagasaki and India. In 1936, he was returned to Poland to supervise the original friary he started. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, he sent most of the friars home while he stayed to organize a shelter for Polish refugees.

In May 1941, the friary was closed down and Father Kolbe and four companions were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp where they worked with other prisoners.

He faced indescribable torture and only because his friends smuggled him to the infirmary did he recover. Later the infirmary doctor said, “I can say with certainty that during my four years in Auschwitz, I never saw such a sublime example of the love of God and one’s neighbor.”

As prisoners were slowly and systematically starved, Father Kolbe stood back, giving them some of his food or taking none for himself.

In the harshness of the slaughterhouse, Father Kolbe maintained the gentleness of Christ. At night he seldom laid down to rest as he moved from bunk to bunk, saying, “I am a Catholic priest. Can I do anything for you?”

A prisoner later recalled how he and several others often crawled across the floor at night to be near his bed so he could pray for them. Father Kolbe pleaded with his fellow prisoners to forgive their persecutors and to overcome evil with good. 

Auschwitz had a rule that if a man escaped, 10 men would be killed in retaliation. In July 1941, a man from Father Kolbe’s bunker escaped. The dreadful irony of the story is that the escaped prisoner was later found drowned in a camp latrine, so the terrible reprisals had been exercised without cause. Nevertheless, the remaining men of the bunker were led out.

Ten men were selected. One of them cried out to be spared on behalf of his poor wife and children. With that cry Father Kolbe stepped silently forward, took off his cap, and stood before the commandant and said, “I am a Catholic priest from Poland. I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.”

Amazingly, the commandant acceded to his request and later the prisoner said, “I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me, a stranger. Is this some dream?”

Father Kolbe was thrown down the stairs of building 13 along with the other victims and simply left there to starve. After two weeks only four were alive, until the camp executioner came in and on August 14, 1941, at 47 years of age, Father Maximilian Kolbe was executed.

No wonder he was later called by some “The Saint from Auschwitz” and by others “The Christ of the Holocaust.”

What happened to the man Father Kolbe saved? He died on March 14, 1995, at 95 years of age, 53 years after Kolbe saved him. He never forgot the ragged monk. Every year on August 14 he went back to Auschwitz and for five decades honored the man who died on his behalf.

What an amazing act of sacrifice.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of  
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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