The head of the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) project that studied the Shroud [the alleged burial cloth of Jesus] in the late 1970’s, when asked if he had a religious experience during the night he spent alone studying the linen cloth, said: “I’m not a religious man, so I don’t know if I could say I had a religious experience. But what struck me throughout the night was the disconnect. Between the face and the body. The body imaged on the Shroud is that of man who had been brutally beaten and tortured. But the face? It’s the face of serene confidence. They just don’t match.”
Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe, whose feast day is today, was killed on this day in 1941 in a starvation bunker at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. He was cremated on August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption and was canonized by St. Pope John Paul II in 1982 as a martyr of charity.
The two numbers in the subject line above are the Nazi’s dehumanizing arm-branded I.D. codes for Fr. Kolbe and for the man he exchanged places with, Franciszek Gajowniczek. After a man had escaped from Auschwitz, ten men were selected to die of starvation as a reprisal for the crime of escaping. Gajowniczek, who was a Jew with a wife and children, was among those chosen to die. Fr. Kolbe, witnessing Gajowniczek’s wailing cries over the fate of his family if he died, said to the Sub-Commandant, Karl Fritzsch: “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.” The offer of exchange was accepted and Kolbe was sent to the starvation bunker. As the Pope said in his homily for the canonization:
Maximilian did not die but “gave his life for his brother.” In that death, terrible from the human point of view, there was the whole definitive greatness of the human act and of the human choice. He spontaneously offered himself up to death out of love. And in this human death of his there was the clear witness borne to Christ: the witness borne in Christ to the dignity of man, to the sanctity of his life, and to the saving power of death in which the power of love is made manifest.
Most remarkable, as with the accounts of St. Edith Stein’s last days, was the manner in which Fr. Kolbe faced the agony of starvation. He was the epitome of St. Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:21 — “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Let me offer you an account of Fr. Kolbe’s last days given by an eyewitness, Bruno Borgowiec, for your meditation.
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 center as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men.
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, 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.
They just don’t match.