Maximilian Kolbe: He died, doing good.

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Reluctantly I call this remarkable hero a martyr simply because the word ‘martyr’ often has a negative connotation.But in his case he truly was a martyr for he sacrificed his live to save others rather then destroy them.

This man was simply a good man who saw evil for what it was and decided to something about it ,sacrificing his own life in the process. He wanted to ensure that evil wouldn’t flourish while he sat idly by. Bravely he saved many lives, giving up his own.

St. Maximilian Kolbe was born as Raymund Kolbe on January 8, 1894, in the Kingdom of Poland, part of the Russian Empire. He was a Polish Conventual Franciscan friar in the German death Camp of Auschwitz during World War II.

In his infancy Raymond seems to have been normally mischievous but one day, after his mother had scolded him for some mischief or other, her words took effect and brought about a radical change in the child’s behaviour. Later Raymond explained this change:‘That night I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both.’ 

Thus early did the child believe and accept that he was destined for martyrdom. His belief in his dream coloured all his future actions.

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One year after his vision, Kolbe and his elder brother, Francis joined the Conventual Franciscans. In 1910, Kolbe was given the religious name Maximilian, after being allowed to enter the novitiate, and in 1911, he professed his first vows.

Kolbe was sent to Rome in 1912, where he attended the Pontifical Gregorian University. He earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1915 there. From 1915 he continued his studies at the Pontifical University of St. Bonaventure where he earned a doctorate in theology in 1919[or 1922(sources vary). He organized the Militia Immaculata (Army of the Immaculate One) after witnessing demonstrations against Pope St. Pius X and Benedict XV. His goal was to work for the conversion of sinners and enemies of the Church, specifically, the Freemasons and he would so with the intercession of Mary.

In 1918, Kolbe was ordained a priest.In July 1919 he returned to the newly independent Poland, where he was active in promoting the veneration of the Immaculate Virgin Mary.He was strongly opposed to leftist – in particular, communist – movement.

In 1930 he went to Asia, where he founded friaries in Nagasaki and in India. In 1936 he was recalled to supervise the original friary near Warsaw. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, he knew that the friary would be seized, and sent most of the friars home.

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He opened up a temporary hospital to aid those in need. When his town was captured, Kolbe was sent to prison but released three months later. Kolbe refused to sign a document that would recognize him as a German citizen with his German ancestry and continued to work in his monastery, providing shelter for refugees – including hiding 2,000 Jews from German persecution. After receiving permission to continue his religious publishing, Kolbe’s monastery acted as a publishing house again and issued many anti-Nazi German publications.

Inevitably, the community came under suspicion and was watched closely. Then in May 1941 the friary was closed down and Maximilian and four companions were taken to the deathcamp Auschwitz, where they worked with the other prisoners.

On June 15, 1941, he managed to write a letter to his mother:

“Dear Mama, At the end of the month of May I was transferred to the camp of Auschwitz. Everything is well in my regard. Be tranquil about me and about my health, because the good God is everywhere and provides for everything with love. It would be well that you do not write to me until you will have received other news from me, because I do not know how long I will stay here. Cordial greetings and kisses, affectionately. Raymond.”

One day an SS officer found some of the heaviest planks he could lay hold of and personally loaded them on the Franciscan’s back, ordering him to run. When he collapsed, the SS officer kicked him in the stomach and face and had his men give him fifty lashes. When the priest lost consciousness the Nazis threw him in the mud and left him for dead. But his companions managed to smuggle him to the camp infirmary – and he recovered. The doctor, Rudolph Diem, later recalled:‘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”

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Continuing to act as a priest, Kolbe was subjected to violent harassment, including beating and lashings, and once had to be smuggled to a prison hospital by friendly inmates.At the end of July 1941, three prisoners disappeared from the camp, prompting SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the deputy camp commander, to pick 10 men to be starved to death in an underground bunker to deter further escape attempts.

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When one of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, a Polish army sergeant ,cried out, “My wife! My children!”,

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Kolbe volunteered to take his place.Father kolbe pointed with his hand to the condemned Franciszek Gajowniczek and repeated ‘I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.’

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According to an eye witness,Bruno Borgowics an assistant janitor at that time, in his prison cell, Kolbe led the prisoners in prayer to Our Lady. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered.

“The ten condemned to death went through terrible days. From the underground cell in which they were shut up there continually arose the echo of prayers and canticles. The man in-charge of emptying the buckets of urine found them always empty. Thirst drove the prisoners to drink the contents. Since they had grown very weak, prayers were now only whispered. At every inspection, when almost all the others were now lying on the floor, Father Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the centre as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men.

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Father Kolbe never asked for anything and did not complain, rather he encouraged the others, saying that the fugitive might be found and then they would all be freed. One of the SS guards remarked: this priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him”

Two weeks passed in this way. Meanwhile one after another they died, until only Father Kolbe was left. This the authorities felt was too long. The cell was needed for new victims. So one day they brought in the head of the sick-quarters, a German named Bock, who gave Father Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid in the vein of his left arm. Father Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, himself gave his arm to the executioner. Unable to watch this I left under the pretext of work to be done. Immediately after the SS men had left I returned to the cell, where I found Father Kolbe leaning in a sitting position against the back wall with his eyes open and his head drooping sideways. His face was calm and radiant ..

After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive. “The guards wanted the bunker emptied, so they gave Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Kolbe is said to have raised his left arm and calmly waited for the deadly injection. His remains were cremated on 15 August, the feast day of the Assumption of Mary.

Kolbe’s recognition as a Christian martyr also created some controversy within the Catholic Church.While his ultimate self-sacrifice of his life was most certainly considered saintly and heroic, he was not killed strictly speaking out of odium fidei (hatred of the faith), but as the result of an act of Christian charity. Pope Paul VI himself had recognized this distinction at his beatification by naming him a Confessor and giving him the unofficial title “martyr of charity”. Pope John Paul II, however, when deciding to canonize him, overruled the commission he had established (which agreed with the earlier assessment of heroic charity), wishing to make the point that the systematic hatred of (whole categories of) humanity propagated by the Nazi regime was in itself inherently an act of hatred of religious (Christian) faith, meaning Kolbe’s death equated to martyrdom.

Kolbe has also been accused of antisemitism based on the content of newspapers he was involved with, as they printed articles about topics such as a Zionist plot for world domination.Slovenian sociologist Slavoj Žižek criticized Kolbe’s activities as “writing and organizing mass propaganda for the Catholic Church, with a clear anti-Semitic and anti-Masonic edge.”However, a number of writers pointed out that the “Jewish question played a very minor role in Kolbe’s thought and work”. On those grounds allegations of Kolbe’s antisemitism have been denounced by Holocaust scholars Daniel L. Schlafly, Jr. and Warren Green, among others.

During World War II Kolbe’s monastery at Niepokalanów sheltered Jewish refugees,and, according to a testimony of a local: “When Jews came to me asking for a piece of bread, I asked Father Maximilian if I could give it to them in good conscience, and he answered me, ‘Yes, it is necessary to do this, because all men are our brothers.'”

Kolbe’s alleged antisemitism was a source of the controversy in the 1980s in the aftermath of his canonization. Kolbe is not yet recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.

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(The statue of Kolbe (left) above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey.)

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(Maximilian Kolbe, on a West German postage stamp, marked Auschwitz)

 

 

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer- The Good German

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Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands out among the Christian leaders during the Nazi era, for he was one of the few to actively resist the racist actions of the Nazi regime. In addition to his legacy of courageous opposition to Nazism, Bonhoeffer’s theological writings are still widely read in Christian communities throughout the world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the sixth child of Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer, born in Breslau,Germany, on February 4, 1906. He completed his studies in Tübingen and Berlin. In 1928, he served as vicar in the German parish in Barcelona; and in 1930, he completed his theological examinations at Union Seminary in New York. During this period, he became active in the ecumenical movement and accumulated international contacts that would later aid his efforts in the resistance.

In 1931, Bonhoeffer took a teaching position with the theological faculty in Berlin. There he produced many of his theological writings, in which he took a traditional viewpoint in Jewish-Christian relations, believing that the Jewish people must ultimately accept Jesus as the Messiah. This theological work greatly increased his prominence in the Christian German community.His writings on Christianity’s role in the secular world have become widely influential, and his book The Cost of Discipleship became a modern classic.

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After years of political instability under the Weimar republic, most Christian institutions were relieved with the ascent of the nationalistic Nazi dictatorship. The German Evangelical Church, the foremost Protestant church in Germany, welcomed Hitler’s government in 1933. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, however, although a member of the German Evangelical Church, was not complacent. In his April 1933 essay, The Church and the Jewish Question, he assailed Nazi state persecution.

Bonhoeffer was born on 4 February 1906 in Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland), into a large family. In addition to his other siblings, Dietrich had a twin sister, Sabine Bonhoeffer Leibholz: he and Sabine were the sixth and seventh children out of eight. His father was psychiatrist and neurologist Karl Bonhoeffer. His mother Paula Bonhoeffer, née von Hase, was a teacher and the granddaughter of Protestant theologian Karl von Hase and painter Stanislaus Kalckreuth. His oldest brother Karl Friedrich Bonhoeffer became a chemist, and, along with Paul Harteck, discovered the spin isomers of hydrogen in 1929. Walter Bonhoeffer, the second born of the Bonhoeffer family, was killed in action during World War I, when the twins were 12. The third Bonhoeffer child, Klaus, was involved in the 20 July plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, along with Dietrich; he, too, was executed by the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer completed his Staatsexamen, the equivalent of both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, at the Protestant Faculty of Theology of the University. He went on to complete his Doctor of Theology degree (Dr. theol.) from [Berlin University] in 1927, graduating ‘summa cum laude’

Still too young to be ordained, the 24-year-old Bonhoeffer went to the United States in 1930 for postgraduate study and a teaching fellowship at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary. Although Bonhoeffer found the American seminary not up to his exacting German standards (“There is no theology here.”),he had life-changing experiences and friendships. He studied under Reinhold Niebuhr and met Frank Fisher, a black fellow seminarian who introduced him to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where Bonhoeffer taught Sunday school and formed a lifelong love for African-American spirituals, a collection of which he took back to Germany. He heard Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., preach the Gospel of Social Justice and became sensitive to not only social injustices experienced by minorities but also the ineptitude of the church to bring about integration.Bonhoeffer began to see things “from below”—from the perspective of those who suffer oppression. He observed, “Here one can truly speak and hear about sin and grace and the love of God…the Black Christ is preached with rapturous passion and vision.” Later Bonhoeffer referred to his impressions abroad as the point at which he “turned from phraseology to reality.”He also learned to drive an automobile, although he failed the driving test three times.He traveled by car through the United States to Mexico, where he had been invited to speak on the subject of peace. His early visits to Italy, Libya, Spain, the United States, Mexico, and Cuba opened Bonhoeffer to ecumenism.

After returning to Germany in 1931, Bonhoeffer became a lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Berlin. Deeply interested in ecumenism, he was appointed by the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches (a forerunner of the World Council of Churches) as one of its three European youth secretaries.

At this time he seems to have undergone something of a personal conversion from being a theologian primarily attracted to the intellectual side of Christianity to being a dedicated man of faith, resolved to carry out the teaching of Christ as he found it revealed in the Gospels.On 15 November 1931—at the age of 25—he was ordained at the Old-Prussian United St. Matthew’s Church (German: St. Matthäuskirche) in Berlin.

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 In The Church and the Jewish Question (1933), Bonhoeffer pledged to fight political injustice. The Nazi injustice must not go unquestioned, and the victims of this injustice must not go unaided, regardless of their religion, Bonhoeffer wrote.

Two days after Hitler was installed as Chancellor, Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address in which he attacked Hitler and warned Germany against slipping into an idolatrous cult of the Führer (leader), who could very well turn out to beVerführer (mis-leader, or seducer). He was cut off the air in the middle of a sentence, though it is unclear whether the newly elected Nazi regime was responsible.

With Hitler’s ascent, non-Aryans were prohibited from taking parish posts, and when Bonhoeffer was offered such a post in the fall of 1933, he refused it in protest of the racist policy. Disheartened by the German Church’s complacency with the Nazi regime, he decided to accept a position at a German-speaking congregation in London.

The opponents of Nazi interference in Church affairs formed the “Confessing Church,” and some members, including Bonhoeffer, advocated open resistance against Nazism. The more moderate Protestants made what they saw as necessary compromises to retain their clerical authority despite expanding Nazi control. But under increasing Gestapo scrutiny, the Confessing Church was soon immobilized.

Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to teach at Finkenwalde, a Confessing Church seminary, where he continued to train clergy for the Confessing Church. But the official church barred his students from taking its clerical posts. In August 1937, the regime announced the Himmler Decree, which declared the training and examination of Confessing ministry candidates illegal. Finkenwalde was closed in September 1937; some of Bonhoeffer’s students were arrested.

Bonhoeffer went into hiding for the next two years; he traveled secretly from one eastern German village to another to help his students in their small illegal parishes. In January 1938, he was banned from Berlin, and in September 1940, he was forbidden to speak in public.

In the midst of political turmoil, Bonhoeffer continued to question the proper role of a Christian in Nazi Germany. When German synagogues and Jewish businesses were burned and demolished on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, Bonhoeffer immediately left for Berlin, despite having been banned by the Gestapo, to investigate the destruction.

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After his return, when his students were discussing the theological significance of Kristallnacht, Bonhoeffer rejected the theory that Kristallnacht had resulted from “the curse which had haunted the Jews since Jesus’ death on the cross.” Instead, Bonhoeffer called the pogrom an example of the “sheer violence” of Nazism’s “godless face.”

The Confessing Church resistance expanded its efforts to help “non-Aryan” refugees leave the country. One member of the resistance movement was the passionate anti-Nazi, Hans von Dohnanyi, a lawyer married to Bonhoeffer’s sister.

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In early 1939, Dohnanyi was transferred from the Justice Department to the Armed Forces High Command Office of Military Intelligence, and used his new post to inform Bonhoeffer that war was imminent. Bonhoeffer, knowing that he would never fight in Hitler’s army, left the country in June 1939 for a teaching position at Union Seminary in New York.

But upon arrival in the United States, Bonhoeffer realized that he had been mistaken, that if he did not lead his people during the difficult years of war and turmoil, then he could not partake in the postwar revival of German Christan life. His place, he decided, was in Germany; he returned only a month after his departure, in July 1939. He undertook a more active effort to undermine the regime. With international contacts in the ecumenical movement, he became a crucial leader in the German underground movement.

In October 1940, despite previous Gestapo tracking, Bonhoeffer gained employment as an agent for Hans von Dohnanyi’s Office of Military Intelligence, supposedly working for the expansion of Nazism. In reality, he worked for the expansion of the anti-Nazi resistance. During his 1941 and 1942 visits to Italy, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian countries, he attempted to gain foreign support for the resistance movement.

While plans to topple Hitler progressed only slowly, the need to evacuate more Jewish refugees became increasingly urgent. In early 1943, however, the Gestapo, which had traced Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi’s large monetary sums intended for Jewish immigrants, foiled plans for a new refugee rescue mission. Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi were arrested in April 1943.

Initially, the Gestapo believed that Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi were embezzling money for their own interests. Then the truth began to leak out, and Bonhoeffer was subsequently charged with conspiring to rescue Jews, using official travel for other interests, and abusing his intelligence position to keep Confessing Church pastors out of the military. But the extent of Bonhoeffer’s resistance activities was not fully realized for months.

In October 1944, Bonhoeffer was moved to the Gestapo prison Tegel in Berlin.

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In February 1945, he was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp, and then to the Flossenbürg concentration camp.

Bonhoeffer was condemned to death on 8 April 1945 by SS judge Otto Thorbeck at a drumhead court-martial without witnesses, records of proceedings or a defense in Flossenbürg concentration camp.He was executed there by hanging at dawn on 9 April 1945.

Bonhoeffer was stripped of his clothing and led naked into the execution yard, where he was hanged, along with fellow conspirators Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Canaris’s deputy General Hans Oster, military jurist General Karl Sack, GeneralFriedrich von Rabenau,businessman Theodor Strünck, and German resistance fighter Ludwig Gehre. Bonhoeffer’s brother, Klaus Bonhoeffer, and his brother-in-law Rüdiger Schleicher were executed in Berlin on the night of 22–23 April as Soviet troops were already fighting in the capital.

His brother-in-law Hans von Dohnányi had been executed concentration camp  on 8 or 9 April.

Eberhard Bethge, a student and friend of Bonhoeffer’s, writes of a man who saw the execution:

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“I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

Flossenbürg concentration camp, Arrestblock-Hof: Memorial to members of German resistance executed on 9 April 1945

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Memorial of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in front of St. Peter’s Church, Hamburg

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The metaphor of the “wrong train” is commonly taken to refer to his country under the Third Reich. How was one ever to turn the train around and make it go the opposite way?