An Afternoon at Auschwitz

“On the face of every human being, especially when marked by tears and sufferings, we can and must see the face of Christ.”  ∼ Blessed Paul VI

We reached Poland early that morning, the long bus drive through the night bringing us first to Czestochowa, where the Black Madonna, Poland’s most sacred icon, has for more than six hundred years welcomed the weary and wayward pilgrim. About four million or so, in fact, eagerly arrive each year in search of solace from Poland’s most powerful Queen Mother. Tracing its origin back to St. Luke the Evangelist, who reportedly painted the image on a cedar top table built by Christ himself, she has repeatedly put enemies to flight, most recently in the last century when a Soviet army poised to capture Warsaw was stopped dead in its tracks by her sudden appearance above the clouds. A sign, to be sure, of Communism’s ultimate collapse, presaged in the most dramatic way by the historic visit of the Polish pope himself, John Paul II, in 1979.

Then, having paid our homage to Our Lady, we dolefully board the buses for the journey to Auschwitz, a place of death and despair so unremittingly awful that it is a wonder the two sites even exist on the same planet, much less the same country. But there can be no disguising the fact that it too reveals the face of Poland, only in so hideously disfigured a form that it is hardly recognizable as human.  And, indeed, no human agency alone could account for so massive and systemic an evil as took place amid the torture chambers and gas ovens of the Third Reich. Chief of which was Auschwitz, where a million or more human beings, mostly Jews, perished between 1940, soon after Poland fell victim to the Nazi juggernaut, and 1945, when Russian troops liberated the camp and the world saw for the first time the faces of those few emaciated survivors whom Hitler had somehow failed to exterminate.

The weather was beautiful as we climbed out of the buses that afternoon, with glints of warm sunshine everywhere; not a cloud in the sky to remind us of the horrors that surely greeted those first visitors who came to Auschwitz seventy-five years before. And never left. We of course were only there to see and to verify for ourselves the place where the unspeakable happened. They were forced to endure it. As one of the inmates told the young boy Elie Wiesel, who reproduces the exchange in his harrowing memoir Night, a searing and unforgettable account of the terrors he and so many others faced at Auschwitz, “I have more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He alone has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people.”

Determined thus to make a clean sweep of things, to wipe thoroughly out of existence the whole of European Jewry, and he very nearly pulled it off.

But what even a deranged tyrant could not quite succeed in doing, despite all the demonic forces harnessed to his genocidal mania, was the extinction of the human spirit. It simply would not lie down and die. And, thankfully, we were shown evidence of its life, of the sheer irrepressibility of human hope, before taking our leave. Because there in the dark cellar of Block Eleven, an infamous place where the tortured screams of prisoners went unanswered, stood the starvation bunker in which a Polish priest by the name of Maximilian Kolbe, along with nine other similarly condemned prisoners, spent the last days of his life. And why was he chosen to suffer in that agonizing and protracted way? Because, in a word, he substituted himself for another, taking the place of a grieving husband and father who would otherwise have died.

“What does this Polish pig want?” demanded the SS officer wearing the dreaded death’s head insignia, when the slight figure of Fr. Kolbe came forward dressed in prison garb—the mark of man’s humiliation, beneath which, in Kolbe’s case, shone the unseen holiness of Almighty God. “I am a Catholic priest,” he replied. “I want to die for that man. I am old; he has a wife and children.”

Incredulous, the officer nevertheless permits the mysterious substitution to take place, and so Kolbe, along with the other nine, is led away to die. Two weeks later, all but four have perished; of these, Kolbe alone remains conscious. A fatal injection of phenol is administered and now Kolbe too is dead. The date? August 14, 1941, the Vigil of the Feast of Our Lady’s Assumption, the Woman clothed with the sun and the stars, who long before had promised young Maximilian the twin crowns of purity and martyrdom.

Nearly forty years later, Poland’s Pope will visit that bunker, and before a vast crowd declare how “victory through faith and love was won by Maximilian Kolbe in this place, which was built for the negation of faith, and to trample radically not only on love but on all signs of human dignity, of humanity: a place built on hatred and contempt for man in the name of a crazed ideology.”

In Patricia Treece’s moving biography of Fr. Kolbe, fittingly called A Man for Others, she recalls an interview with the only Polish Jew who managed to survive the Auschwitz hell who knew the saintly priest. An orphan of only thirteen at the time, he remembers Kolbe (who, he says, “I will love until the last moments of my life”), as the one who “used to wipe away my tears. Because of the death of my parents I had been asking, ‘Where is God?’ and had lost faith. Kolbe gave me that faith back. He was like an angel.”

Why (one cannot help asking) did the Nazis so detest priests? And why did they invariably identify the two, that is, both the Jew and the priest? The answer is not difficult to know. The Jew was the nearest and, for all those disaffected Germans who elected Hitler in the first place, the most convenient scapegoat for everything that had gone wrong since Versailles; the hated treaty whose harsh and punitive terms left a proud people both prostrate and betrayed. But the hatred went deeper still for it was not anything the Jew had done that stoked their resentment but simply because of who he was: the ancient reminder of the Law given by God to his chosen and beloved people Israel. Because the world failed to observe the Law, sin and guilt were born. In a twisted and utterly perverse way, man may assuage his guilt by killing the carrier, which is to say, the despised and dreaded Jew.

And the priest? In a story told by a man who had known Fr. Kolbe at Auschwitz, there is more than a hint of an explanation. Indeed, the profound affinity struck between Jew and priest is such that a mysterious covenant of blood necessarily anneals one to the other. And that, finally, it is Christ himself who mediates the union between the two, in that mysterious covenant between Jew and Gentile for whom so much suffering has made one.

In May of 1941 we were working in a torn-down house when one of the prisoners found a crucifix. SS Storch got ahold of it and he called Father Nieweglewski.

“What is this?” he asks the priest. Father remains silent but the guard insists until he says, “Christ on the Cross.”

Then Storch jeers: “Why you fool, that’s the Jew who, thanks to the silly ideals which he preached and you fell for, got you into this camp. Don’t you understand? He’s one of the Jewish ringleaders! A Jew is a Jew and will always be a Jew! How can you believe in such an enemy?”

Father Nieweglewski is silent.

Then Storch says, “You know, if you’ll trample this Jew!—and he throws the crucifix on the sand—I’ll get you transferred to a better job.”

When the priest refused, the SS man, the capo, threw him a couple of times on the crucifix; then they beat him so badly that, shortly after, he died.

The following day, Sunday, we board the buses one last time, leaving Poland behind for good. But there are two final stops on our way out, each a very special place in the life of Poland. And not just for Poles only. Each is a setting wherein the soul of man may find the renewal of his hope. On the outskirts of Krakow we stop at the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy, the place where Christ came to remind the world of his Father’s bottomless love for sinners. And then it is on to Wadowice, the place where John Paul II was born. To see the home where he lived, adjacent to the church where he prayed, and where the seed of a future vocation was first planted, is in some ways the most moving experience of all. Made especially memorable by the Mass we attended, celebrated by one of our own, a Franciscan friar, who nourishes us on the same Christ who has kept faith with Poland for so long and who, for all that remains bleak and tragic in our fallen world, is history’s last word.

Regis Martin

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Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

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