Do Not Go Gentle

BirkenauBricks

By: Dayton Martindale

My family attended St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church in Westlake Village, California, from before I was born until my high school years. I went to mass almost every Sunday and even spent some time playing piano in the youth choir. Neither my faith nor the church community was ever a big part of my life, and since high school my worldview has skewed secular. But I was surprised to find, in Auschwitz, that the name of Catholic priest Maximilian Kolbe still meant something — to me and to many others.

We were in the camp’s cell block, walking by tiny rooms where people had been locked away, many starved to death. I heard our guide Paweł mention Kolbe’s name first, then saw a plaque in a cell. I remembered the rough outlines of his story, but Paweł refreshed us all on the details.

After three prisoners had escaped, he recounted, the Nazis rounded up ten random prisoners to put to death as collective punishment. One of these ten asked to be spared, saying he had a wife and children. The SS guard was, of course, unmoved. But Kolbe volunteered to switch places, and so the man was saved.

Kolbe and the nine other condemned men were put in a cell and starved. After two weeks the other nine had died, and Kolbe was shot. After the war, the man he’d saved was reunited with his wife (his children had died).

I had heard the story before, but hearing it again in this place moved me to tears. I was moved, in part, by my personal connection to Kolbe, however tenuous—but even more so by the stunning realization that this was the happiest story I’d heard at Auschwitz. Happy that two family members had been reunited, and happy that a Catholic priest had retained enough compassion amidst the camp’s cruelty to lay down his life for another.

That this, the story of ten men brutally executed, should count as an uplifting tale says much about visiting Auschwitz. The camp is a portrait of bleak despair: The Nazis, I can’t help but admit, were very good at what they did, which was to create an environment where hope and resistance were nearly impossible. Even 70 years later, I found myself overwhelmed; This was a masterpiece of control and domination.

Many of the issues I write about — criminal justice, environmental degradation, human-nonhuman interaction — also raise serious questions of control and domination. I see the road to Auschwitz in so many places today, in the prison, in the coal mine and in the slaughterhouse. And I wonder: What have we learned? We still wage wars and put prisoners to death and force people out of their homes. Meanwhile, we’re systematically eroding the climatic preconditions that helped make large-scale human society even possible. For the sake of what—shareholder value?

Are we as a species doomed to be destroyers, clinging to our hierarchies as we exploit as many others as we can get away with? Does the path of civilization lead inevitably to Auschwitz? (Here I find my thoughts dovetailing with those of Martiniquean writer-politician Aimé Césaire, who, in a biting essay on colonialism, determined, “Whether one likes it or not, at the end of the blind alley that is Europe … there is Hitler.”)

But Kolbe resisted. In the grand scheme it was nothing, but to one man and his wife it was everything. And many Poles resisted, going underground when the Nazis invaded, maintaining an anti-occupation press and smuggling critical information to the Allies. One barracks at Auschwitz has become a museum dedicated to the Polish experience, which lionizes the resilience and integrity of those who pushed back. I would have liked to hear more about the underground’s tangible impact on the war effort, some validation that opposition can make a difference. But for the most part, the exhibit focused on the mere fact that they opposed, a fact with its own beauty and power — a power that is part of the human experience, too.

And during this exploration of past, I formed bonds with the other FASPE fellows learning alongside me — karaoke duets and golf cart rides around Krakow and late-night philosophy debates exist in the same world as the gas chambers. But how? I’m not quite sure.

But at Auschwitz today, as other observers have noted, birds still sing and wildflowers grow. Many remain unsure what to make of this, but I for one am glad the signs of life continue here. While I respect the site’s value as a place of remembrance, a place to learn from history’s mistakes, I hope that one day life once more overruns this symbol of death. Because to me, the only thing that can make any of this worth it is that, from Nazi-occupied Poland to Ferguson, Missouri, from the endangered wildlife flourishing in the Korean Demilitarized Zone to the unbroken moral fortitude in the heart of Maximilian Kolbe, we find a vital, irrepressible spirit that never stops fighting, and in it the seeds of a better world.

Leave a Reply