The Saint from Auschwitz
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl had great admiration for Father Maximilian Kolbe, praising his courageous example of self-sacrifice. In 1941, Kolbe was arrested in Poland by the Nazis. He was taken as a prisoner to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. When a prisoner had escaped from Kolbe’s bunker, the prisoners were commanded to line up before Camp Commandant Karl Fritsch. To punish them, ten men were to be starved to death. Fritsch randomly selected one man from each line.
One of the men he had chosen was Francis Gajowniczek. However, he cried out: “My poor wife! My poor children! What will they do?” It was then that Father Maximilian, prisoner number 16670, stepped out from the ranks and asked to be selected instead of Gajowniczek, saying, “I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.”
Fritsch insulted Kolbe, asking, “What does this polish pig want?” Fritsch agreed to Kolbe’s offer. He and nine other men were sent to the death chamber, which was Cell 18. They suffered a slow death from starvation. Kolbe, after being starved, died from a lethal injection on August 14, 1941. Frankl writes,
“[T]oday you need no longer hesitate to use the word ‘saints’: think of Father Maximilian Kolbe who was starved and finally murdered by an injection of carbolic acid at Auschwitz and who in 1983 was canonized.”1
Meaning in Life and Death
For Frankl, Kolbe had found meaning in both life and death, giving his life so that another man may live. Frankl mentions Kolbe’s sacrificial death, saying,
“Father Maximilian Kolbe found meaning within the fraction of a second when he decided to sacrifice his life, asking the SS for permission to let himself be sentenced to death instead of a family father.”2
John Paul II’s Logotherapeutic Observations
“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.”
The pope, then, in describing Kolbe’s heroic act, indirectly refers to three themes in logotherapy, which are self-transcendence (“gave his life … for his brother”), freedom (“human choice”) and love (“offered himself up to death out of love”). Although not a Catholic, Dr. Frankl would probably agree with the pope’s observations of Kolbe’s heroism in the concentration camp of Auschwitz. Frankl notes,
“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.”3
Indeed, Kolbe preserved “a vestige of spiritual freedom” in the camp, not allowing it to dehumanize him, destroying his human capacity to love. In fact, he transcended his horrific conditions by choosing love over hate, courage over fear and self-sacrifice over self-preservation.
1. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 154. Actually, Father Kolbe was canonized on October 10, 1982.
2. ———-, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning (New York, N.Y.: Insight Books/ Plenum Press, 1997), p. 157, note 8.
3. ———-, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed., p. 74.