Trading Places

  In my book The Body, I told the story of a priest named Maximilian Kolbe, who died in the place of another prisoner at Auschwitz. But what The Body left out was the rest of the story… the story of what happened to the man Father Kolbe saved. The story begins in 1939, the year Germany invaded Poland. Father Kolbe was then presiding over a Franciscan order he'd founded near Warsaw. A hard-working priest, Father Kolbe expressed a love, enthusiasm, and sense of humor that endeared him to his brethren. But in February of 1941, the Nazis arrested Kolbe and charged him with publishing unapproved literature. They sent him to Auschwitz, and the 47-year-old monk nearly died from the back-breaking work. Despite the brutal conditions, Father Kolbe ministered to his fellow prisoners. He prayed with them, heard their confessions, and comforted their souls. But that ministry ended one hot July morning. An inmate had escaped, and the angry soldiers lined the prisoners up. "The fugitive has not been found!" the commandant screamed. "Ten of you will die for him in the starvation bunker." The prisoners trembled in terror. A few days in this bunker without food and water, and a man's intestines dried up and his brain turned to fire. The commandant selected the weakest-looking prisoners for death. One of them—a Polish farmer named Franciszek Gajowniczek—couldn't help a cry of anguish. "My poor wife!" he sobbed. "My poor children! What will they do?" Suddenly Father Kolbe thrust himself forward. "I would like to die in place of one of the men you condemned," he said. The Nazi commandant stared at the bearded figure. "In whose place do you want to die?" he asked. "For that one," Kolbe responded, pointing to the weeping prisoner. Kolbe was thrown down the stairs of Barracks 11 along with the other victims. One by one, the men died of hunger and thirst. Kolbe himself survived 14 days before a Nazi doctor finished him off. And what of Franciszek Gajowniczek? He died three years ago in Poland—53 years after Kolbe had saved him. But he was never to forget the ragged monk. After his release from Auschwitz, Gajowniczek spent the next five decades paying homage to Father Kolbe. A few years ago, the 94-year-old Pole visited St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church of Houston. His translator on that trip, Chaplain Thaddeus Horbowy, said: "He told me that as long as he… has breath in his lungs, he would consider it his duty to tell people about the heroic act of love by Maximilian Kolbe." Think of it: Franciszek Gajowniczek spent his whole life honoring the man who died on his behalf. Yet many of us live our own lives in utter apathy toward a God who made an even greater sacrifice than Father Kolbe made for Franciszek Gajowniczek. How ironic. And how tragic. What about you and me? Are we devoting our lives praising the One who saved us—not just for a lifetime, but for all eternity? As we celebrate the Easter season, we need to keep in mind the words of the psalmist— words echoed by a Polish farmer: that as long as we have breath, it's our joyous duty to magnify the Living Lord… the Christ Who died for us.


Chuck Colson


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