PATRON OF OUR DIFFICULT CENTURY
Kolbe an Anti-Semite? Is Zeal For Souls Misinterpreted As Hatred For The Jewish People?
Webster's defines anti-Semite as "One who discriminates against or is hostile to or prejudiced against Jews as a religious or racial group."
Was St. Maximilian Kolbe an anti-Semite as is sometimes claimed, even today?
Let us examine the issue.
The Allegations Begin
Such charges against Maximilian began around 1982, originating predominately in the United States, when Pope John Paul II was preparing to canonize Kolbe as a martyr and a saint (which happened on October 10, 1982). One of the more prominent voices was Richard Cohen, a reporter for the Washington Post.
In a Post article (December 14, 1982), Cohen wrote that Kolbe's memory is haunted by the rumor that he was an anti-Semite. While he admitted that Kolbe was an " extraordinary, selfless" man, Cohen concluded that his canonization was "inappropriate." "He and others like him provided a hospitable environment for [the Holocaust.] By propagating anti-Semitism, they set the stage for the unimaginable horror that was to follow," writes Cohen.
There were others who agreed. Christopher Hitchens, Washington correspondent for The Nation, described Kolbe as "a man who really belonged in the Inquisition" for "stoking the very oven in which he was to perish." Rabbi Zev Nelson, writer for the Boston Jewish Advocate, said Maximilian "pursued a relentless anti-Semitic campaign" through his publishing activities. Asks Rabbi Robert Gordis, editor of Judaism, "If this is a saint, who needs sinners?"
Defenders of Kolbe
Many at the time came to Maximilian Kolbe's defense, establishing the unlikeliness, in fact the incredibility, of the charges.
Warren Green, director of the St. Louis Center for Holocaust Studies, along with Professor Daniel Schlafly of Saint Louis University, were particularly vocal in defense of Maximilian. In a statement in the St. Louis Review (June 25, 1982), they insisted that the "charge that Father Kolbe was associated with 'rabid racist anti-Semitism' is false." In a letter to the editor of the New York Review of Books they responded similarly to a book review by John Gross, in which Gross stated that Kolbe "kept up a relentless anti-Semitic campaign." Wrote Green and Schlafly, "his image of the Jews, as of all who did not share his faith, was of people who were prisoners of error, not objects of hatred." Jewish writers, as well, agreed with this analysis. In an SICSA Report article, John Paul II, "St. Maximilian Kolbe and Anti-Semitism," Ronald Modras states that Kolbe's missionary fervor should not be equated with animosity toward those he sought to evangelize.
From the records of Kolbe's writings, sermons, and eyewitness testimony, it is clear that the Jewish question played a very minor role in Kolbe's thought and work. Of his 10,006 extant letters and 396 other writings (newspaper and magazine writings, spiritual conferences, etc.), only thirty-one refer to Jews and Judaism. Their content is overwhelmingly spiritual and apostolic, with few comments of any kind on contemporary political, social, economic, or other secular concerns. His main interest was his missionary work; in Kolbe's words, "to seek the conversion of sinners, heretics, schismatics, Jews, etc., and especially, Masons."
In this effort, 'zeal' was always to be tempered by 'prudence' and respect for the individual . . .
A scene from Diana Dewar's book, Saint of Auschwitz: The Story of Maximilian Kolbe, supports Modras. She writes of the "the last Christmas for many" celebrated at Niepokalanow in 1939. Her description shows that Kolbe harbored no animosity toward the Jews, in fact showed them great love at their most vulnerable moment.
About 3,000 Poles, including 1,500 Jews, were abandoned by the Germans at Niepokalanow where Maximilian and his brothers surrounded them with illimitable love and practical concern....
On Christmas Eve 1939 a solemn Midnight Mass was celebrated and ardent prayers offered. . . . Maximilian knew intuitively that it would be the last Christmas for many whom the friary was sheltering. The friars showed a caressing tenderness to the old, the young, and the Jews, who were given their own celebration on New Year's Day.... It was the thoughtfulness of the Franciscans which moved the Jews near to tears.
One must ask, could this episode of charity have been cultivated by someone who was a "relentless anti-Semite"?
Poland Was Haven for European Jewry
Many are unaware of the supportive relationship that existed for centuries between Poles and Jews. Hitler established his death camps in Poland because Poland harbored the single largest Jewish community in the world. When other European countries persecuted or expelled Jews from their lands, Poland served as a haven for Jews and was the foremost center of Jewish learning and culture. It was the Poles who brought the genocide of the Jews to the attention of the incredulous West. In fact, in Poland there was an underground organization, the Zegota established expressly to assist Jews.
In A Man for Others (Marytown Press), Patricia Treece shows us from Jewish testimony that Maximilian Kolbe was among those Poles who gave aid and assistance to Jews. Of particular note is the testimony of Rosalia Kobla, who lived near the friary at Niepokalanow: "When Jews came to me asking for a piece of bread, I asked Father Maximilian if I could give it to them in good conscience, and he answered me, 'Yes, it is necessary to do this because all men are our brothers.'"
Influenced by Freemasonry
In one of Kolbe's writings he appealed to readers to pray for the "straying children of Israel," in order to "lead them to the knowledge of the truth and the achievement of true peace and happiness, since Jesus died for everyone, and therefore for every Jew also ..." This evangelistic plea should not be taken as hatred or hostility to the Jews.
St. Maximilian's strong desire to evangelize stems from an experience he had in 1917 when massive anti-Catholic demonstrations were organized in Rome to mark two famous anniversaries: the proclamation of the "95 Theses" by Luther in 1517 and the foundation of the first modern-style Freemason Lodge in the world, the Grand Lodge of London, in 1717. In Masonic demonstrations celebrating Freemasonry's bicentenary, flags bearing an effigy of Lucifer were carried through the streets by demonstrators shouting: "The Devil shall rule in the Vatican and the Pope will be his lackey."
All this made a tremendous impression on the young Franciscan who realized the power of Freemasonry and its anti-Christian presumptions. Yet, while he realized the danger Freemasonry presented for the Catholic Church, he pitied the souls of the Freemasons, many of Jewish heritage, who, he believed, were in danger of eternal damnation.
Conversion is the Goal, Not Persecution
That same year, 1917, Kolbe started the Militia Immaculata, dedicated to the service of the Virgin Mary and to converting the world to the Catholic Faith. To bring about this ideal, he started a Catholic publishing ministry. In his monthly journal, The Knight of the Immaculate, and his daily paper, The Little Daily, Kolbe used the printed word to inform the public about national political and cultural problems. Being Polish, not Jewish, publications, in controversial matters quite naturally they took the Polish rather than the Jewish side. This was not anti-Semitism although have some tried to make it so.
As stated earlier, many Jews were members of the new atheist Communist movements or were anti-Christian Masons, whereas Polish society was undergirded by traditional Catholicism. The Little Daily championed Catholic moral and social views, and this would be quite natural and expected. For example, when the paper presented the idea that Catholic children should be taught in Catholic schools by Catholic teachers, this was not anti-Semitism. It was simply a pro-Catholic voice advocating its continuing tradition. As Mitch Finley wrote in a 1983 article in Our Sunday Visitor, "St. Maximilian was a man of his time. It is unfair to expect him to reflect a post-Vatican II ecumenism which values Jewish tradition as integral to a complete appreciation for Christianity."
Again, however, in 1982 there were some who vocalized their disagreement.
Some said Kolbe was guilty of grave error in lending credence to the so-called Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a master plan for Jewish world domination later shown to be a Russian forgery. Kolbe mentioned the Protocols in two articles. Reflecting Protocol's rhetoric, he referred to the founders of Zionism as "a cruel, crafty, little known Jewish clique," a "small handful of Jews [who had let themselves] be seduced by Satan."
Jedrzej Giertych, author of "Libel Against a Saint," in defense emphasized that many in 1920s Poland, including Polish Jews, assumed the Protocols were authentic. Why would Kolbe be immune to such "common knowledge"? Says Giertych, Whatever the truth, there is nothing reprehensible in taking seriously, in 1924 and 1925, the views expressed in these Protocols....
There is no need to ascribe the program to the whole Jewish nation. But neither was there any need to reject it as untrue. Father Kolbe had a right to be impressed by the text of this Publication if he read it. Nor should it be forgotten that he read it only 4 or 5 years after the end of Poland's war with Bolshevik Russia . . .
Giertych defends Maximilian in other ways, contending it was Christian zeal, not base prejudice, that characterized his relations with the Jews. "Father Kolbe was certainly not an enemy of the Jews as such, and in particular was anything but a "racial" or "zoological" anti-Semite. He saw in the Jews souls created by God, for which he prayed continually and whom he sought to help when they were in need."
The Evidence is Clear
St. Maximilian Kolbe's memory sparks images of a man totally dedicated to serving Our Lord and Our Lady. His life was lived in love for God's creatures. His voice will echo through the ages disapproval for evil in all its forms. This saint, beloved throughout the world by those of all creeds, never discriminated, was hostile or showed prejudice against the Jewish race. He merely witnessed the wisdom he found in his Catholic faith to all people regardless of race, religion or culture.
All Christians are spiritually Jews, says Vatican II, echoing St. Paul. As John Paul II says, "Who meets Jesus Christ meets Judaism.... The spiritual legacy of` Israel [is] a living legacy that must be understood and treasured in its profundity and its richness."
Surely St. Maximilian Kolbe believed the same, as the witness of his life attests.
Perhaps Marytown's Kolbean scholar, Fr. Bernard Geiger, summarizes the argument best when he analyzed the charges at the time of the canonization. In "Kolbe an 'Anti-Semite'?" published in the Immaculata, March 1983, Father Bernard says, "Would an anti-Semite urge a woman of the neighborhood to help the war-impoverished Jews who came begging at her door? A somewhat anti-Semitic woman had actually asked Father Kolbe whether it was 'all right' to do this. Kolbe patiently reassured her, responding: Indeed we must do it because every man is our brother.
"Would an anti-Semite have graciously welcomed 1500 Jewish refugees into his friary, shared his living space and meager food supplies with them, gone out begging additional supplies for them from the neighborhood, and thoughtfully organized a New Year's party for them to cheer them up? Kolbe and his friars did.
"Would an anti-Semite have befriended a 13 year old Jewish boy in the genocidal, anti-Semitic atmosphere of Auschwitz, taken him into his arms like a mother hen, wiped away his tears, shared his food with him, restored his faith in God? Kolbe did."
Concludes Fr. Bernard, "For those willing to look at it, the evidence against Kolbe's anti-Semitism is decisive."
Becky Ready is Immaculata staff writer. She was assisted by Mrs. Margaret-Mary Rose.
Taken from the May/June, 1996 issue of "Immaculata Magazine." Immaculata magazine is published six times a year by the Conventual Franciscan Friars of Marytown, 1600 West Park Avenue, Libertyville, IL 60048-2593, 708-367-7800. Subscription rate $11.95 per year.