Prisoner #16670

(The following message was presented as part of my preaching classing at Wesley Seminary in DC.  As promised, the manuscript of the message is posted here…)

Just one of the many ways I would describe myself is that of being a diehard history buff.   I love to waste time in some obscure history book or glued to the History Channel on television.  I find this “getting lost” as one of only a few handfuls of escape that I have in my day to day.  

At the same time, somehow along the way I found myself drawn to a particularly dark episode of recent history; namely the Holocaust.   I have read virtually everything I can find on the subject.  I have been profoundly changed by the many heartbreaking stories of strength and faith told by those who survived.  

I point to Dietrich Bonheoffer, the Holocaust theologian, minister, and victim as one of the people having most influenced my life and vocation.   I think of Anne Frank, Corrie Ten Boom, and Elie Wiesel and know I cannot overstate the impact that their stories have had on my faith and my life.  The stories from this time empower and challenge me.

At first, I think I was drawn to this era because of a close family relative (a man who was almost like an adoptive grandfather to me) who I believe may have been part of the liberation of many of the camps in the days following the close of WWII. I discovered this piece of his life after his death, and in these stories I feel a sense of connection with this man who so profoundly impacted my life. If my interest was sparked in that connection, it grew to something exponentially more profound when I had the opportunity to visit the Dachau concentration camp outside of Munich, Germany.  

I once heard that there are a handful of moments in one’s life that changes everything that comes after it.   Walking on that sacred ground, there was a very real change in me with each step.   I started to see these stories as images of holiness and godliness born at the very gates of hell.   I experienced heartbreak at Dachau because of many lives and voices that were lost to the great evil found there.  

(I have posted about my visit to Dachau and that can be found by clicking here)

Thankfully, there are many stories that remain.  There are stories that still want to be heard and shared.    Today, I would like to share one particular story.  Today I would like to introduce – or reintroduce if the case be- to a man named Maximilian Kolbe.  If there is a voice that needs to be heard by people of faith today, it is his.  I first heard this story while travelling Germany, and later during a sermon message in the US.   At first, I thought it was a bit of a fish tale and had taken legandary proportions, but I felt called to investigate that sermon and the man it investigated.   This message represents some of that research and my own conclusion.

Kolbe was a Catholic priest, and during the wartime occupation of Poland, Kolbe’s faith drew him to hide more than 3,000 polish refugees, including 2000 Jews, in his priory.  Kolbe was eventually discovered by the Gestapo and arrested for his crimes against the German state. On May 28, 1941, he was transferred to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. 

As you know, Auschwitz was the worst of the worst.  When you dive into her stories and her histories you cannot begin to imagine the evil darkness that was centered at this complex of nearly 50 individual camps.   As soon as you think you have heard it all, more vileness rises to the surface.  It is as if there is a never ending supply of heartbreak from Auschwitz.

When Jews arrived at Auschwitz, they formed a solid line of three or four prisoners abreast.   Together they walked towards a small grandstand like area, where men in military uniforms stood inspecting the arrivals.  At the feet of these uniformed men, some would be directed left and others right.  Those that went left survived, those who went right did not.    All the Jews were welcomed with flowing speeches and promises that if they worked hard they would be okay.

They forced imprisoned Jewish musicians to play music at the deciding grandstand.  Those musicians had the highest suicide rates of any group within the camp.  Some survivors remember seeing tears on the cheek of a musician as they tried to play joyous and celebratory music with a thousand yard stare on their face.  Today there are still survivors who say when they have nightmares in their sleep; the music of those tearful musicians provides the soundtrack.

At Auschwitz a prisoner’s daily food allowance was barely enough to sustain the smallest of children.   Each adult prisoner was given one cup of imitation coffee (made from twigs and cinder) in the morning.  For dinner they were given watered down soup and a small chunk of black bread after returning from the fields or factories where they had worked 15 or 18 hours without rest.

When food was brought to the prisoners they would nearly riot to insure that they received their small chunk of bread.   During these near riots, Father Kolbe could be seen standing off to the side, allowing others to get what was available first.   Despite living on the fringes of starvation himself, more times than not when the food ran out Father Kolbe would return to his bunk with an empty stomach.  

When he did manage to get his rations, he would usually pick off a small amount and hand the remainder, with a blessing, off to a child or a sickly prisoner.   At times he would wrap his meager portion into a small piece of cloth and hide it away all with the intent of using for a celebration of the Lord’s Supper after lights out.  He seldom ate even the smallest of portions.

Those who remember Father Kolbe remember a priest.   He was pastor, spiritual leader, and a source of strength and calm for countless prisoners.   Survivors recall what they labeled as a “Christ-like gentleness” despite the harshness of life in the camp.  When they were in their bunks at night, Father Kolbe didn’t surrender to sleep but instead worked his way from bunk to bunk saying to whoever he found:   ‘I am a Catholic priest. I am a pastor.  I am a Christian. Can I do anything for you?’  

Father Kolbe would sit with other prisoners and provide hope in place where humanity appeared dead.   He would talk about God, and he would urge his fellow prisoners to forgive those who delivered their daily beatings.   He talked about the incredible strength found in overcoming the power of evil with the power of good.  He taught his fellow prisoners how to pray while standing face to face with the devil.

One of the last letters that remain from Maximilian was one written to his mother.   The letter revealed who Maximilian truly was.  In that letter he wrote:

‘Dear Mama, At the end of the month of May I was transferred to the camp of Auschwitz. Everything is well in my regard. Good is good. Be tranquil about me and about my health, because that good God, who is everywhere, will provide for everything with love.”  

As a person who considers his faith strong, I hear Father Kolbe’s words and I hope and pray that if my world collapses, I can face the ugliness of that new place with all the Grace that Father Kolbe put forth.  I hope I too can praise God when I stand in the devil’s own backyard.

Hearing the story of Father Kolbe, it doesn’t surprise me that his life ended as it did.  One day a man in Kolbe’s block escaped. As part punishment and part determent, the men from that block were brought out into the hot sun and made to stand in the center of the camp all day with no food or drink. As they stood, they leaned upon one another, for if they fell, they would have surely met the bullet of angry guard.

When the sun went down and the escapee was neither caught nor returned to the lineup, the camp’s commandant issued the standard punishment for escape.   Ten prisoners were selected to die within the darkest corners of Auschwitz;  a place called the starvation chamber.  Once you entered the starvation cell, the door was locked and you never found your way out.

Of those ten selected was a polish sergeant.  He begged to be spared.  In desperation he cried out; “I have a wife, I have sons.   Without me they cannot survive.”   The sergeant begged his captors:  “Please, Please, do not chose me!”   Tears streamed down his gaunt and skeletal cheeks. 

When the man was pleading with the commandant, Maximilian Kolbe silently stepped forward. The commandant turned to him and demanded to know what the clergyman wanted.

Kolbe pointed to the polish sergeant and said, “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children, and I have nothing.”  The commandant said nothing, but Father Kolbe continued to plead.   Although only a few years older than the sergeant, he told his captors that he was an elderly man and not good for anything anyways.

The commandant, shaking his head in disbelief, waved the skinny priest to the front of the line.   He then allowed the stunned and crying sergeant to go back to his place in the ranks.  Father Kolbe and 9 others were thrown down a set of stairs and into that cement starvation bunker.   The door was locked.

Once a prisoner entered the starvation chamber, the only times the door was opened again was when guards came each day to check and remove the dead from the day before.   The chamber was a sauna.   Within a day or two, thirst would take over and usually the prisoners would find themselves liking the moisture off the walls and eventually turning to some of the most animalistic methods of survival.   One by one and very slowly they would give up and die in the cell.

When the ten were in the cell, and the guards opened the door to search for the dead they were shocked by what they saw.   They were met with prisoners kneeling in prayer.   Sometimes the prayer was in song.   There was no crying or screaming from the bunker.   Some of the guards were so taken by the holiness of the scene that they snuck wine and bread into the bunker so communion could be celebrated.  Each day the guards were met with the same scene.

Even as they began to die while praying or singing, Father Kolbe never stopped praying.   When hunger prevented him from speaking he began to whisper his prayers and pleas.When his voice broke due to thirst he continued to pray as if his voice was the loudest in the room.   After two weeks and the passing of five other prisoners, Father Kolbe still prayed.

Finally, enough was enough and the commandant issued a command that the situation be resolved by the end of the day.   A group of guards came in and gave each a lethal injection and on August 14, 1941 the five remaining prisoners died.    It was said by a trustee that Father Kolbe was allowed to die last, and as he did, he raised his arm for the needle, looked to the sky and said: “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”

The man who Kolbe volunteer for, was asked later what ran through his mind when Maximilian stepped forth.  He said this:

‘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?

I was put back into my place without having had time to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this.

For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of Maximilian.

By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant.

Let us here our Lord’s words again, and anew:

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them,

 “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

In the end, maybe the crosses we are called to carry will be subtle and carried without notice, much like that random man or woman in the random pew whose story remains untold.  Maybe it will be the cross of dear old Edna whose ministry takes the form of casseroles and prayer shawls.    Maybe it will be Norman, whose ministry is to remind us all how things have always been done, and how they should remain.

But Perhaps,…

Perhaps the crosses will be loud and change men and women for generations to come, like the souls of those who shined brightly in places darker than our imagination can begin to conceive.

Whatever those crosses may be, we are called each day to deny ourselves and take them up…and follow him. 

I hope and today I pray that in the end I find my cross and grab it with eagerness and with both hands, like those that came before me.

Thanks be to God, for those ugly and beautiful crosses that He has laid, and continues to lay before each of us. Amen.


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