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Memories of Hell’: An Exchange

In response to:

Memories of Hell from the June 26, 1997 issue

To the Editors:

I was surprised by the remark that Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who gave his life for a fellow prisoner at Auschwitz, was a “notorious anti-Semite.” Accustomed to Professor István Deák’s erudition, I did not expect to find such an unfounded condemnation in his writing [“Memories of Hell,” NYR, June 26]. The evidence simply does not support his conclusion.

In the early 1980s the St. Louis Jewish Light commissioned two scholars, one Catholic (Daniel L. Schlafly, Jr.) and one Jewish (Warren Green), to examine Father Kolbe’s life and writings and to evaluate charges of anti-Semitism. A detailed report, published June 30, 1982, which looked at Father Kolbe’s fourteen hundred published works found that there were only fourteen references to Jews, some very positive, five negative, and none racist.

Another charge levelled at Father Kolbe had to do with Mal Dziennik, the popular daily produced at his friary which was accused of promoting anti-Semitism. Father Kolbe was away at a mission in Japan for much of the 1930’s and issued instructions not to publish articles that could be construed as being anti-Semitic. He could not, therefore, be held directly responsible for any shortcomings.

Father Kolbe’s wartime activities on behalf of Jews are well documented, having been movingly described by Patricia Treece in her biography A Man for Others: Maximilian Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz (New York: Harper & Row, 1982).

One of the reasons Father Kolbe was eventually arrested by the Gestapo on February 17, 1941, at his friary in Niepokalanów, was because of the extensive help that monastery provided to large numbers of refugees from Western Poland in 1939- 1940, including as many as 1,500 Jews. The friars also encouraged local residents to help Jews and themselves sheltered several Jews for long periods at the friary. (Assistance was rendered to Jews at some 700 church institutions throughout occupied Poland.)

The allegations of Father Kolbe’s anti-Semitism would have doubtless come as a surprise to the many Jewish refugees who found shelter at Father Kolbe’s friary. On leaving Niepokalanów, a spokesperson for one of the groups of Jewish refugees who were taken in, addressed Father Kolbe and his friars in these words:

Tomorrow we leave Niepokalanów. We’ve been treated here with much loving concern…. For the blessing of this all-round kindness, in the name of all the Jews present here, we want to express our warm and sincere thanks to you, Father Maximilian, and to all the Brothers. But words are inadequate for what our hearts desire to say….

Another Polish Jew added:

If God permits us to live through this war, we will repay Niepokalanów a hundredfold. And, as for the benevolence shown here to the Jewish refugees from Poznaå«n, we shall never forget it. We will praise it everywhere in the foreign press.

After Father Kolbe’s arrest in February 1941, he was taken to the notorious Pawiak prison in Warsaw and then deported to Auschwitz on May 28, 1941. In Auschwitz he again came into contact with some of the relatively small number of Jews interned there at the time. (The large influx of Jews to the subcamp in nearby Birkenau—known as Auschwitz II—did not get underway until many months after Father Kolbe’s death by starvation and lethal injection in August 1941.)

One of the Jewish survivors of Auschwitz, Sigmund Gorson, then a thirteen-year-old boy (who now resides in the State of Delaware), says of Father Kolbe:

He knew I was a Jewish boy. That made no difference…. His heart was bigger than persons—that is, whether Jewish, Catholic or whatever. He loved everyone. He dispensed love and nothing but love. For one thing, he gave away so much of his meager rations that to me it was a miracle he could live. 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 that time and place—I can only say the way he was is beyond words.

I am a Jew by my heritage as the son of a Jewish mother, and I am of the Jewish faith and very proud of it. And not only did I love Maximilian Kolbe very, very much at Auschwitz, where he befriended me, but I will love him until the last moments of my life.

This opinion extended to other Polish priests as well. Eddie Gastfriend, another Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, states:

There were many [Polish] priests in Auschwitz. They wore no collars, but you knew they were priests by their manner and their attitude, especially toward Jews. They were so gentle, so loving.

Those of us Jews who came into contact with priests, such as Father Kolbe (I didn’t know him personally, but I heard stories about him), felt it was a moving time—a time when a covenant in blood was written between Christians and Jews….

Father Kolbe was one of almost 3,000 members of the Polish Catholic clergy who perished at the hands of the German invaders, sixty of them specifically for helping Jews. They constituted the vast majority of the more than 5,000 Christian clergymen interned in concentration camps. Because of their nationality, they were targeted for sadistic forms of torture and medical experimentation, especially at Dachau.

R.J. Tyndorf
Information Services
Canadian Polish Congress&#151
Toronto District
Ontario, Canada

István Deák replies:

As so often when reading or writing about the horrors of World War II, one must confront the nearly unimaginable: this time it concerns the case of Father Maximilian Kolbe of the Order of St. Francis in Poland. We must try to imagine a line of political prisoners at Auschwitz, in the main camp, in which every tenth person will be executed for one collective infraction or another. Kolbe steps forward and offers to take the place of another prisoner, a Polish soldier, who has a wife and children. The German executioners consent to the change. The soldier prisoner will survive the war and will return to his family; Kolbe and other victims are hurled into underground cells. It is not clear whether Kolbe’s death was expedited by a fatal injection, as R.J. Tyndorf’s letter says, or whether he was starved to death. The underground cells, no bigger than small closets, are being shown to visitors today. Father Kolbe was canonized in October 1982. He is a martyr among martyrs and a saint. Why then did I call him “a notorious anti-Semite?” Because he was well-known as an anti-Semite, although I should not have used the word “notorious.” After all, among many thousands of anti-Semites and others mouthing slogans of racial, ethnic, religious, and class hatred during the interwar years, he was one of the less notorious. That he has been made a saint, however, makes what he said and wrote much more important. Kolbe was not a racist; he embraced those Jews who had accepted baptism. But he also accepted The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an abominable forgery, as a genuine document outlining a great Freemasonic-Jewish world conspiracy. He believed that the Zionists aimed at world domination. And in the immensely popular Catholic journals that appeared under his editorship or under his spiritual guidance, he allowed others to write even more nastily about Jews. All this happened in the 1920s and the 1930s when it became more and more difficult to be a Jew in Poland and when anti-Semites put heavy pressure on the Polish government to introduce anti-Jewish measures.

Readers who want to know more about this question should read the controversy in these pages following a less than laudatory review by John Gross of a laudatory book on Kolbe. Two researchers, Daniel Schlafly and Warren Green, wrote convincingly that Kolbe was much more preoccupied with the alleged evils of the Freemasons than with those of the Jews.* And Mr. Tyndorf is quite correct to say that, after the Germans had invaded Poland, Kolbe and fellow monks bravely harbored many fugitives, among them hundreds of Jews. At a time when many well-known liberals and humanists did nothing to help, more than a few anti-Semites regretted their earlier intolerance and risked their lives on behalf of the Jews. Kolbe deserves our deepest admiration for his sacrifice. In his letter to the editors, however, Mr. Tyndorf does not quote some of Kolbe’s more strongly anti-Semitic pronouncements that Schlafly and Green uncovered in their exemplary research. If, during the war, fewer Poles were willing to risk their lives and those of their family by hiding a Jew, this may have been owing in some degree to the anti-Semitic writings such as Kolbe’s that were widely published before the war.

Not surprisingly, most of the letters to the editors following my article take up the theme of Poland and Polish-Jewish relations. Professor Richard C. Lukas, whose book, Did the Children Cry?: Hitler’s War Against Jewish and Polish Children, 1939-45, I reviewed favorably, takes me to task for calling him a “Polish-American historian.” This, in his opinion, labels him as “just an ethnic historian.” As someone who does not object in the least to being called a Hungarian-American historian, I certainly did not mean to offend Richard Lukas but, in any case, I apologize for any hurt feelings Icaused. Professor Frank Fox, who is the editor and translator of Calel Perechodnik’s Am I a Murderer?, a terrifying memoir of a Polish-Jewish ghetto policeman, criticizes me because he thinks I cast doubt on the responsibility of the German Nazis for the Holocaust. But I only raised the valid questions of precisely who took the decision to exterminate all the Jews of Europe and when they did so. Most probably it was Hitler himself, but we have no written proof of this. It could have been Göring or Himmler whose recommendation Hitler approved enthusiastically. Contrary to what Fox and others have written, the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 did not decide to exterminate the Jews; it only gave the German leadership’s approval to a process of extermination that had begun earlier. But the responsibility of the German leadership and of an enormous number of other Germans is clear beyond any doubt. Mr. Fox also drew from my article the conclusion that Iregard desperate acts of Jewish survival, as with the Jewish ghetto police, as analogous to the cruelties of the Jews’ Nazi tormentors. I do not.

Finally, William Krasner wants to know where I stand in the Polish-Jewish controversy. He compares what he calls my “even-handed approach” to the position taken by the farm wife who, finding her husband in a deadly struggle with a bear, decides that it would be proper not to take sides. In his parable, the bear stands for the Polish people and the husband for the Jews. I cannot agree with such an oversimplification. The Polish Jews were killed by the Germans and not by the Poles, and several million Poles were also killed, in their case by both Germany and the Soviet Union. It is true that some Poles made life very difficult for Jews in the interwar era, and that some Poles helped the German Nazis to hunt down Jews or hunted them down on their own. But it is also true that, between 1939 and 1941 in Soviet-occupied eastern Poland as well as after 1944 in all of Poland, some Jews in Soviet or Polish Communist police uniform hunted down Christian Poles. Poles accused and often still accuse the Jews of being Communists at the service of a monstrous foreign power; Jews accused and often still accuse the Poles of being anti-Semites and fascists. Yet the criminals in both camps were only a minority; most people were victims.

It is wrong to strictly separate the two groups and view them as opposed to each other when thousands of Jews served in the Polish army, and when many Jews considered themselves both good Poles and good Jews. Besides, the Polish anti-Semites were equally harsh on Poles they disgreed with; and the Jewish Communists unhesitatingly persecuted Jews whom they considered “bourgeois reactionaries.” Nothing better illustrates the tragedy of Poles and Jews in World War II than the fact that, after 1939, hordes of Poles and Jews tried to move from the Soviet zone to the German zone and vice versa. Meeting at secret crossing points, those who came from the west and those who came from the east yelled at each other: “You fools, where do you think you are going?”

Fifty years later, many of these victims and their American conationals still have not found a common language. Part of the blame lies with individual Poles, especially some Polish priests, who even today do not hesitate to write about a Jewish world conspiracy. Part of the blame also lies with American commentators, some of them Jewish, who make irresponsible collective judgments about endemic Polish and Eastern European anti-Semitism (not to mention Russian anti-Semitism). Fortunately, more and more Jews and Poles are beginning to engage in a dialogue and to work on joint projects dealing with each other’s history and culture. It is time for the others to bury the hatchet as well.

  1. *

    See John Gross, “Life Saving,” The New York Review, February 17, 1983, which reviews two books, one of them being Patricia Treece’s A Man for Others: Maximilian Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz, in the Words of Those Who Knew Him. See also Schlafly’s and Green’s letter as well as John Gross’s reply in the April 14, 1983, issue.

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