By Dr. Harold SalaGreater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13
It was 3:00 in the afternoon on one of the last days of July, 1941 when the men of Block 14 were digging gravel outside the Auschwitz concentration camp. Suddenly the sirens began to shriek and German sentries shouldered their guns. There had been an escape. Silently the men of Block 14 prayed that the escapee had not been from their block. That evening their worst fears were confirmed. The missing prisoner had been from Block 14. The entire camp was punished and received no evening meal, which usually consisted of a dried piece of bread and some cabbage soup or gruel.
The next day the remaining 600 men from Block 14 were forced to stand on the parade ground under the broiling sun. Under the noonday sun, men fell over from the heat and fatigue. Those who collapsed were left to die where they lay. “At the day’s end,” wrote newspaperwoman Connie Lauerman, “the deputy commander, Fritsch, arrived in his crisply pressed uniform and shiny jackboots to announce the fate of the terrified men in dirty, blue-gray striped prison suits. The silence was absolute. ‘The fugitive has not been found,’ barked Fritsch. ‘In reprisal for your comrade’s escape, 10 of you will die by starvation. Next time it will be 20.’”
The men slated for starvation were selected. One of those men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, a Polish army sergeant, was sobbing, “My wife and my children.” Suddenly a Polish Fransciscan priest, Maximilian Kolbe, pushed his way to the front as S.S. guards sighted their rifles on his chest. “I want to talk to the commander,” he said, looking Fritsch straight in the eye. “Herr Kommandant,” he began without faltering, “I wish to make a request, please.” “What do you want?” barked the commandant. “I want to die in place of this prisoner,” pointing to the sobbing Gajowniczek. “I have no wife and no children. Besides, I’m old and not good for anything.” It was totally out of the ordinary and completely unexpected. There was absolute silence, but soon it was broken with the words, “Request granted!”
Maximilian Kolbe died of starvation in place of a man who bore the sentence of death. Jesus Christ himself said it, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for a friend” (John 15:13).
Maximilian Kolbe, now St. Maximilian to Catholics, will long be remembered for that heroic act of sacrifice. However, it seems to me that there are scores of men and women who are in the ranks of the saints who have never been canonized–those who care for the elderly, who wash the soiled linen and gently turn their frail bodies, the armies of nurses and doctors who tenderly minister to the needs of others who are repulsive and repugnant because of putrid illness. There are vast numbers of people who sacrifice themselves in a very real way for others. “God is not unjust,” wrote the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews, “He will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them” (Hebrews 6:10).
In all probability God will never, never ask you to make the decision that Maximilian Kolbe made, yet He does ask you to make a decision–for to love demands sacrifice for someone else. None of us has the right to live selfishly, for all of us have been the recipients, in some way, of the love that prompted Maximilian Kolbe to give his life. Remember, friend, it was Jesus Christ Himself who gave Himself freely and without compensation that we might live eternally. Yes, greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for a friend.
Resource reading: John 15
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally entitled, “MAXIMILIAN KOLBE”