Review of "A Man for Others" by Patricia Treece
I was half way into this book when I felt the urge to send copies to everyone I know.
"There is no poetry after Auschwitz," people say. Others insist that there can be no God after Auschwitz, and no man either, at least not man as we had wished humanity to be. We live in an ugly world of mindless cruelty blasted into our minds by 24-7 news broadcasters. One atrocity after the other invites us to be cynical, to be selfish, and to think that our only satisfaction can be found in the next good meal or drug fix or other self-indulgent, transient pleasure.
Maximilian Kolbe, Polish Catholic priest and Auschwitz prisoner, was one of the most remarkable people who ever lived. His kindness, trust in God, and active compassion shatter our most cynical, selfish stances.
"A Man for Others" is an amazingly easy and engaging read. For the most part, the book consists of transcripts of oral recollections of Kolbe's life from his most intimate friends, family members, and fellow Auschwitz prisoners. The most profound truths are expressed in simple language. A middle school student could read this book, and then reread it later in life, and gain new understanding of its incredible story.
Maximilian Kolbe was born to a family so poor that they could not afford to send him to school, and under a foreign occupation so oppressive the colonizing powers refused Polish children the ability to study in the Polish language. He developed active tuberculosis and coughed up blood regularly. At times, his body was so weak, he felt himself close to death. In spite of hardships that have stunted many a life, Kolbe founded a religious order that prospered in Poland and in Japan.
While founding these orders, Kolbe, the man in charge, observed absolute poverty. He gave freely of whatever money he accumulated. He slept on bare floors under leaking ceilings. The Polish and Japanese peasants among whom he lived were poor, and he allowed no privileges for himself, in spite of his impossible work load and tubercular lungs. The people who knew him during these years, long before his fame spread throughout the world, observed that he was a saint in the making.
When Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, they targeted Kolbe, and all other priests, monks, and nuns. Kolbe was arrested on September 19. He and other priests were packed into train cars. When they asked for water, they were called "Polish swine" and told they were "destined for extermination." Prisoners were fed starvation rations and had to sleep on the ground in winter. In December, Kolbe was released. His followers encouraged him to flee Poland. They knew that with his high profile, his freedom was temporary. Given that he had had a taste of what it meant to be a prisoner of the Nazis, it is all the more remarkable that Kolbe decided to do what he did next: defy the Nazis further.
Kolbe made his headquarters, Niepokalanow, a shelter for refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, including an estimated two thousand Jews. Among Kolbe's last published words, and among the most inspirational words ever written, were the following, "No one can alter the truth. What we can do and should do is to search for truth and then serve it when we have found it." These were incendiary words in a Poland occupied by Nazis. Kolbe was arrested again, and sent to Auschwitz.
There is no need to repeat here what Kolbe endured in Auschwitz. The horrors of that manmade hell are all too familiar. What is unforgettable is Kolbe's behavior. This fragile, tubercular priest, by all accounts, went out of his way to be kind to all. Receiving only starvation rations, he gave his food away to others. He counseled fellow prisoners. He showed no hostility to Nazi guards. For all this, he was singled out for beatings and cruel tortures. A man of peace, deprived of all power, he still had the power of truth. Nazis were so intimidated by him they ordered him not to look at them. They could not endure the power of his eyes (228). After the war, Sigmund Gorson, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, testified of Kolbe, "Now it is easy to be nice, to be charitable, to be humble, when times are good and peace prevails. For someone to be as Father Kolbe was in [Auschwitz] … is beyond words."
Kolbe offered to take the place of a man condemned to death. He was stripped and held in a dark, bare-floored, foul-smelling, featureless concrete cell, with ten other men, with no food or water, until they starved to death. In the cell, Kolbe spent his final days praying, singing, and encouraging his fellow prisoners. It took weeks for him to die. Finally, the Nazis injected him with carbolic acid.
The bare facts of Kolbe's story inspire awe. The bare facts are not enough. You need to read this book, to get an intimate sense of Kolbe the human being. "A Man for Others" was one of those rare, special books that gave me the sense that I was acquiring a new friend. Kolbe comes alive in these pages. He is a man we need today.
Sadly, this must be mentioned. After Kolbe was canonized, professional atheist Christopher Hitchens, celebrity attorney Alan Dershowitz, superstar scholar Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, and Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen launched a tragically misguided smear campaign against Kolbe. Prof. Daniel Schlafly and Warren Green, director of the St. Louis Center for Holocaust Studies, debunked the smears, and the concerned reader is advised to study their full report.
“No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hetacombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we are ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”
― St. Maximilian Kolbe
"A Man for Others" at Amazon here