SAINT MAXIMILIAN KOLBE 
A train to Auschwitz
It was the end of May. All of the prisoners at Pawiak were suddenly taken out of their cells. “Hurry! Hurry!” yelled the warders. A few hundred meters away there was a cattle train. When they had all been loaded into the trucks, a corporal snapped to the attention in front of a field-marshal and reported that there were 320 heads aboard and that all was ready.
The murderous journey took 24 hours; a scaring thirst tortured the 320 individuals locked inside the trucks. Then, on the night of May 28, the gates were noisily thrown wide open. “The darkness”, recorded a survivor, “echoed with strange order and with that barbarous barking of Germans which, when they issue commands, seems to give vent to centuries’ old anger.”
About ten S.S. men quickly appeared. They directed the group into two parties with a minimum of gestures and words. “They decided whether each of us could do some useful work for the Reich or not”, wrote one who lived to tell the tale, “then suddenly our wives, our parents, our children were moved off. We saw them for a short time in the dim light at the other end of the platform; we did not see them again.”
Those judged “fit to work” had to run the two kilometers separating them from the camp at Auschwitz; the terrified Poles knew the place by the name of Oswiecim. As they ran, fierce dogs, sooled on by the S.S., bit at their heels.
It should be noted that to staff their extermination camps (amongst which Auschwitz, Dachau, Belsen and Mauthausen were unfortunately well-known) the Nazi hierarchy did not choose normal soldiers, but criminals released from prison, men who had been condemned as abnormal sadists and felons. From May 28, 1941, these men were the “Superiors” of Father Kolbe and his unfortunate companions.
On the main gate of the camp was a brightly illuminated inscription: “ARBEIT MACHT FREI – Work makes one free”.
Inside the camp they were stripped and herded into a large hall to be disinfected. They waited for hours, their teeth chattering.
“Suddenly” wrote a survivor, “hot water poured out from the showers. Five minutes of bliss. But shortly afterwards, four guards came in, shouting at us to move into the next room which was icy cold; here other shouting guards threw some clothes at us and gave each of us a pair of shoes with wood soles. Before we knew where we were, we found ourselves outside in the early morning cold and, barefooted and naked, with our whole outfit in our hands, we had to run to another hut, a hundred meters away. Only here we were allowed to get dressed.
A new man 16,670
Everything was taken away from these men: clothes, shoes, hair. They even took away their names. Henceforth Father Kolbe would be known as 16,670. For the remainder of his life he was to have this number tattooed on his left arm.
At Auschwitz it was work, work with a devilish monotonous rhythm. Very early in the morning before dawn there was the call ‘Wstawac” – (“Get up”). Pandemonium followed. They had five minutes to get up, dress, and attend to their toilet because then grey pieces of “brot” (bread) were distributed. Anyone who arrived late missed out and suffered the pangs of hunger until mid-day.
They worked from dawn to dusk. They marched out briskly. Coming home they almost ran. It was a tragic farce to see those long columns of men dressed in prison stripes returning at the double in strict formation whilst an absurd band made up of other men in prison garb played brisk marches in the large square of the camp.
Down below, beyond the barracks, the tall chimney of the crematorium ovens was always smoking. Any one who succumbed to fatigue, who did not fight for his rations, who was slow in running and fell by the wayside knew that he would finish up there. He would be thrown on to a minecart, dead or dying it did not matter. The cart would slip down the rails to the mouth of the oven. Colonel Fritsch, the camp commandant, would tell them, with a smile on his face: “The only way you’ll leave here is through that chimney”.
Father Kolbe was assigned to Block 17, reserved especially for priests whom Fritsch defined as “useless beings and the parasites of society”. Father Maximilian was chained to a cart with other Polish priests to pull very heavy loads of gravel for the construction of the boundary wall of the crematorium. At ten-meter distances along the route of the carts there was a gaoler armed with a stick to beat them; they had to run past to avoid being hit.
During the night a shadow over Block 17
When the boundary wall had been completed, Krott, the blunt, cruel Nazi commander of Block 17 gave the prisoners another job. They had to pull down trees, tear off the branches, bundle them together and transport them, all by hand. Father Kolbe, often bleeding as a result of the blows of the guards, staggered along the uneven path under the weight of an increasingly heavy load. But, despite all this, there was peace in the depth of his soul. He knew that his Citadel had been destroyed, he knew that his Army had been scattered by the tremendous whirlwind of war, that all his work had been burnt in the bombing. But he knew that God is stronger than evil, that after the darkness the light would shine again. He clung strongly to this certainty even although it seemed a forlorn hope. It did not matter if he would no longer there. The Kingdom of God would reign on earth, in justice and peace. Others would walk before the face of the Lord, to prepare His way; others chosen by Him.
One day when the tree trunk loaded on to his shoulders was far too heavy, Father Kolbe fell to the ground, like Christ under the weight of the Cross. And Nazi Krott, imitating the cruelty of the Roman guards to perfection, punched and kicked him. “I’ll teach you to work, you priest of the devil!” He did not crucify him, but stretched him across the trunk and gave him fifty strokes of the lash. When Christ was scourged He received only 35 strokes from his gaolers, the maximum permitted by the law. The other priests passing by saw him lying motionless in a pool of blood and covered him with green branches. They thought he was dead.
But during the night, a shadow staggered and dragged itself into Block 17. It was he! He had managed to drag himself to his own palliasse in pitch darkness! Next morning he was swollen with bruises and running a high temperature. They took him to the sick bay, the waiting room of death.
In his delirium this prisoner did not curse, did not cry out in terror; he prayed, he spoke to God. And those who were waiting for death knew thereby that a priest had joined them.
Later his fever abated, but he could not move from his palliasse; however, human skeletons dragged themselves towards him seeking a word of hope, of faith. He reconciled to God many of these people without hope.
Doctor Sternler, a survivor who had learnt to hate everything and everybody in Auschwitz, spent a night with his hand in the hands of Father Kolbe, who whispered to him: “Hatred builds nothing. It is love which saves”.
Miraculously the fever left him, and his wounds closed up. Father Maximilian was transferred to Block 12, amongst the invalids. This Block was greatly feared: they were on half rations and there was no medication; even small cuts turned septic. Father Kolbe found words of comfort also for these unfortunate companions. He made bearable terrible sufferings.
A prisoner has escaped
July 20. Number 16,670 was transferred to Block 14; agricultural work. It was harvest time. The men were taken a long way out to work in the fields. One of the prisoners in an act of desperation tried to escape by hiding in the crop.
That evening at roll call, one prisoner did not answer. All of those in Block 14 shuddered. One of the rules at Auschwitz, always carried out, was that: “For every escapee, ten prisoners would pay with their lives”.
The prisoners in Black 14 were kept standing rigidly to attention. The sun was setting in a darkened sky. Mess time came round and the orderlies brought in the scanty rations; the soldiers tipped them into the drains bordering the clearing. The prisoners would go hungry.
They remained at attention, immovable, despite their tiredness after a hard day in the fields. It became dark. The night wore on and finally they were permitted to go into their barracks.
When they were called next morning, the escapee had still not returned. All, without exception, were required to stand at attention from dawn until three in the afternoon under a burning July sun. Some fainted. They were taken away.
Rations were brought out at three o’clock. They were allowed half an hour to eat their meal. Then it was standing at attention again until evening.
It was about seven o’clock when Fritsch, the camp commandant, arrived with his usual train of hangers-on. He began to shout in German and his words were heard in deadly silence. “The escapee,” he ended angrily, “has not been found. Ten of you will pay for it with your lives”.
Deleted from the list of the living
He walked down the line of prisoners. He lifted his arm and pointed with his finger: “This one, That one …”. An assistant followed him with a list of the prisoners and marked those to be deleted from the living. The tenth was a Polish sergeant – Francis Gajowniczek. Overcome with desperation he cried out: “My wife … my children …”.
At that very moment a man stepped out of the ranks of those who had been spared. It was an act that could cost him his life. The Germans instinctively reached for their revolvers. Fritsch took a step backwards and yelled: “What does this Polish pig want? Who is he?”
“I am a Catholic Priest,” answered Father Kolbe in perfect German, “and I ask permission to take the place of that prisoner”. He pointed to Sergeant Gajowniczek.
Fritsch hesitated for a split second. Then he turned to Gajowniczek and with a “Get back there” motioned to him to join the ranks of the living. Thunderstruck he scampered back. The assistant checked through the list for the number of Father Kolbe and crossed it off.
There was a sharp command: “Hand in your shoes”. One who was to die did not need them; the Germans, instead, wanted them for other prisoners. The next order addressed to the ten condemned men was: “Left turn”, and they were marched off to the “hunger bunker”. It was underground and those who were condemned to die were imprisoned there in darkness without food or water.
Four injections of phenic acid
A guard pushed them inside and before he closed and locked the heavy door, he said laughingly: “You will wither away like so many tulips”.
Bruno Borgowiec was a Polish interpreter who had to go down every day with the German guards to check the state of the dying. He said later: “Previously those condemned men had always been in a state of despair; this time even the German warders were amazed by what they saw. The condemned men were gathered around Father Kolbe, and at intervals sang Polish hymns to the Madonna. More than once the guards had to tell them to be quiet because condemned people in other cells were joining ini”.
The voices became weaker day by day. As a man died he was carted away. Father Maximilian comforted them in their last moments, and closed their eyes in death. With an amazing show of will power, he remained either standing or on his knees. His face remained calm and his blue eyes amazingly serene. One of the warders was quite disturbed one day and yelled at him: “Don’t look at me like that, you priest of the devil”.
After two weeks Father Kolbe was still alive, along with three other prisoners. The cell was needed for other victims and Fritsch ordered that “they be finished off”.
It was August 14, the vigil of the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady. At mid-day Bock, a German nursing orderly, entered the cell. He went to the four prisoners in turn and into the arm of each he injected deadly phenic acid. Father Kolbe was leaning against the wall praying. As Bock approached he extended his arm.
Maximilian Kolbe’s body was thrown into the furnace along with those of his companions. His ashes, mixed with those of three million other victims, were scattered over the countryside near Auschwitz. Every spring it is covered with white flowers and red flowers. [End]
Source: Fr. Teresio Bosco SDB, SAINT MAXIMILIAN KOLBE, Melbourne: A.C.T.S. PUBLICATIONS, 1982, pages 22-29.
Jakarta, August 16, 2012
A Christian Pilgrim