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Courage In The Face of Life’s Atrocities

December 9, AD2013 9 Comments

Frank - MosesDo you ever contemplate how different your life might have been if you had been born in a different time, place and circumstances?

Perhaps it is the curse of a creative mind; the writer’s relentless pursuit to share stories that compel the reader toward introspection or action.  I often place myself in “what if” scenarios to ponder how I might respond given all the variables of circumstance.  For example, I would like to think that if I’d been born and lived in Warsaw, Poland, and witnessed the events surrounding the rise and dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, I would join the resistance, and aid in hiding and relocating Jews.  I conjure my dilemma in holding strong to my Catholic faith as a demure congenial housewife (if I were so blessed to be Catholic), maintaining a convincing charade before the Gestapo elite while concealing my clandestine objective.  Or, perhaps I would embrace a more adventurous response, serving as a headstrong freedom fighter, living in the shadows of a harsh reality, wearing men’s clothing, embracing a sub-machine gun across my shoulder, while living on cigarettes, stale bread and the kindness of people who support our cause.

A more perplexing scenario for me is how I would manage being born and raised Jewish in the Polish Ghetto during that time.  If I had the great misfortune to arrive at Auschwitz or Beirkenau, would I have been a courageous and selfless inhabitant, helping my fellow prisoners cope, or become a selfish recluse, staggering through each day, praying for death while cursing God for my misfortune?

Balancing Fear and Courage

My favorite “what if” scenarios come while saying the Rosary.  What if I had been born a Jew in Nazareth, and lived when a man named Jesus came to challenge everything I knew about God and man?  Would I walk miles to join others on the Jordon River bank to hear him preach in forming my own opinion?  Or would I prefer to hang out at the street market with my gal pals, and gossip about this zealot, extremist, fanatic, blasphemer?

Every Lent during the liturgy reading of the Passion of Christ, I cringe just a little when the assembly responses, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  Every year I ask myself the same question at that moment.  On which side would I stand?  Would I be standing in that crowd shouting, or huddled in a remote corner with Mary and others crying in disbelief?

Keep in mind that in all these scenarios, you would not have the historical knowledge or the theological wisdom you possess today.

The most compelling elements to all my scenarios is the equitable balance of fear and courage, conviction and complacency.  I might have the conviction to do what I know is right, but would I have had the courage to propel me toward action?  Or would fear relinquish me to complacency?

Here is an often overlooked component that each of us fails to appreciate when recalling saints and heroes in history.  Every single human being experiences fear and courage in some form or intensity in any given situation.  It is a very basic human emotion in all of us.  Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God,  experienced fear at Gethsemane, and again on the cross at Golgotha.  Yet, he submitted to the Will of God and found the courage to persevere, fulfilling God’s plan for our redemption.  To think that fear is the inevitable disabler of action is inaccurate.  It is the lack of faith.  Regardless of who we are, or the circumstances that surround us, we are capable of accomplishing the unthinkable. Why?  Because God gives us an essential component to our humanness to succeed.  It’s called faith.  And when we believe with faith the size of mustard seed, nothing is impossible for us even in the most horrific circumstances.

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage

Read any memoir or choose any story in Scripture.  In every retelling, the ordinary person being herald as courageous experienced a moment of self-doubt and fear.  But when they dug deep and gripped tightly to their faith, they rose above their own expectations of themselves and accomplished the extraordinary.  Through their ordeal, they may have questioned God for their suffering, but they never relinquished God from their grip.

Ruth Minsky Sender’s memoir entitled “The Cage”, allows the reader to stand alongside her and her family in their perils against the Nazis in the Lodz Ghetto and then in Auschwitz .  You feel her anguish and struggle with fear, contrast be her relentless determination to survive.  Fear was part of everyday life.  She couldn’t escape it, but her faith would not allow her to be paralyzed by it.  Her famous quote says it all, “As long as there is life, there is hope”.  It was her faith that compelled her and propelled her forward.

Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor, received the Nobel Peace Laureate for his memoir entitled “Night.”  If you truly want to appreciate intense fear and courage, his memoir of his experiences in Buna, a subcamp of Auschwitz III-Monowitz, and later in Buchenwald will terrify and inspire you.  “I remember, May 1944: I was 15-and-a-half, and I was thrown into a haunted universe where the story of the human adventure seemed to swing irrevocably between horror and malediction.”

Like all of us, Wiesel struggled with questions.  This passage is most reflective of his recognition of God’s presence:

“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked . . .For more than half an hour [the child in the noose] stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.  Behind me, I heard the same man asking:  “Where is God now?”  And I heard a voice within me answer him:  “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows. . . .”

Later Wiesel would reflect on his experience to inspire the world to recognize indifference as the poison of humanity:  “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

The Courage of a Saint

There is one Polish man that continues to inspires me in and how I approach this life that I must embrace every day.  His name was Rajmund Kolbe, although he will forever be remembered as Saint Maximilian Kolbe.  During WWII, Kolbe provided safe refuge for an estimated 2,000 Polish Jews in his friary in Niepokalanów.  It is also intriguing to note that Kolbe was an avid radio operator who used the call letters SP3RN.  He took opportunities to vilify Nazi activities through his radio reports, which were surely intercepted by the Third Reich.  On February 17, 1941 he was arrested by the German Gestapo and imprisoned in the Pawiak prison.  On May 25 of that same year, he was transferred to Auschwitz as prisoner #16670.  And here is where Maximilian Kolbe’s conviction set the standard for me.

On a hot day in July, 1941, a fellow prisoner in Kolbe’s barracks vanished.  In response, the camp’s deputy commander, Karl Fritzsch, ordered 10 men to be selected from the same barracks to be punished and killed in order to deter further attempts to escape.  One of the ten men selected was a young man named, Franciszek Gajowniczek, who cried out for mercy, in hopes of seeing his family again and desire to live.  In that second of emotional anguish, Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to take the Franciszek’s place.

Later, the body of man who had escaped was discovered drowned in the camp latrine. Karl Fritzsch was never interested in finding and punishing the escapee.  He wanted to set an example against future attempted escapes, and he was willing to satisfy himself with the death of ten men as restitution.

Kolbe and the other nine prisons where placed in Block 13, which was notorious for torture and death.  During his incarceration in Block 13, Kolbe led the men in songs and prayer. After three weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe and three others were still alive. Commander Kritzsch then ordered that Kolbe and the others be injected with carbolic acid to end their lives.

What If:  Leaving Your Own Legacy

Granted most of us will never be placed in situations that will test our level of fear, courage and faith with such intensity.  However, Maximilian Kolbe, Elie Wiesel, Ruth Minsky Sender, and countless others, do inspire us to live a faithful life and respond selflessly to humanity’s call for mercy.  How we respond becomes our legacy.

On October 10, 1982, Pope John Paul II canonized Saint Maximilian Kolbe, and declared him a martyr of charity. He is the patron saint of drug addicts, political prisoners, families, journalists, prisoners and the pro-life movement. Pope John Paul II declared him “The Patron Saint of Our Difficult Century”.

It is most appropriate here to reiterate that Pope John Paul II declared Kolbe “The Patron Saint of Our Difficult Century” in the 20th century.  We are still living in a difficult century – the 21st century.  We need the intercession of St. Maximilian Kolbe more than ever.  The holocaust we witness today is a silent abomination; the massacre of millions of innocents.  Abortion.

Just as equally disturbing, we have tens of thousands of children abducted and sold into sex slavery.  There are young women and children whose genitalia are mutilated as a form of purification and submission.  We have men and women being tortured and killed for being Christians, and Catholic priests being beheaded.  There are countries where ethnic cleansing kills thousands just for being considered a member of “the wrong tribe.”

The Holocaust that shocked the world in the 1930’s and ’40’s never ended.  It merely took another form; conceived by evil, born of the desire to control and destroy, thriving on the will to dominate.  And we, the children of the Most High God, have been given the strength and power to combat these atrocities.

What are we doing to stop these present day holocausts?  Whether you are standing outside an abortion clinic with a Rosary in hand, counseling a young woman at a Pregnancy Clinic, serving as a missionary in the brothels of India, or adopting a child from China or India, you are showing the courage and fearless resolve of those you admire.

There are no guarantees in this life that you will be remembered by your fellow man for what you were able to accomplish.  But your Father will know and remember.  Hopefully, one day you will receive the words that we all long to hear upon our return home; “Job well done, my good and faithful servant.”

“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

© 2013 Diane McKelva.  All rights served.


Sender, Ruth Minsky. The Cage. New York: Macmillan, 1986. Print.

Treece, Patricia. A Man for Others: Maximilian Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz, in the Words of Those Who Knew Him. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982. Print.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Bantam, 1982. Print.

The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity

Jewish Virtual Library

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Recognized as the former Editor in Chief, Diane McKelva is now the Editor Emeritus of Catholic Stand. You can learn more about Diane and her work here.

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