Cell 18

I am haunted.

Dates are important to me. They are markers which bring me back to the time I was marked, discernible moments that changed the course of my life. 24/12/1979, birth: I made it! 3/2/1980, baptism: I’m reborn. 4/4/1993, my brother dies: Confusion. 25/3/1999, first kiss: monumental. 24/8/2002, first day at seminary: sadness, terror, consolation, resolution (all in the first 24 hours!). 24/10/2005, another brother dies: Anger. 18/7/2009, priestly ordination: Joy…peace.

9/5/2014, Auschwitz.

We had set out as a group of 12 youth leaders to Krakow a couple of days before. We came to check out the city and the available accommodation in order to start the process of preparation for World Youth Day in 2016 (non-Catholics, google it). As an ‘extra’, it was suggested we visit Auschwitz on the last day, to see what potential there might be for bringing our young people there. I’m one of those people who is put off by other people’s review of things. For example, when someone tells me a movie they’ve just seen is the best movie ever, it immediately puts me into negative stance, and I often leave disappointed. So it was with Auschwitz: “you’ll feel this, you’ll feel that, never be the same again…” blah blah blah.

Auschwitz, however, is like no other experience. It is, in fact, the anti-experience. To say you experienced something, you have to come out on the other side (ex-per-ire: To go out, through). Nobody came out on the other side in Auschwitz, even if the body remained alive. You feel this as you walk around. As one walks under the entrance sign – ‘work makes you free’ – the free air of humanity is slowly sucked away. Walk into a room with 2 tonnes of human hair on show, shaved from the head of women before they went to the gas chamber, destined for German pillow cases and clothing; it is hard to feel anything, just a weight, a crushing, yet painless weight. Enter the latrine block, where men and women were forced together for their two toilet breaks of the day, at the start and the end of 12 hours of back breaking labour. They were given seconds to do their business before they were beaten from the latrine as thousands waited their turn. They must have slept in their own faeces. Hope seeps away like air from a slow punctured tire. Nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. The essence of evil. Everywhere.

The starvation block was made up of cells, which could perhaps fit one person lying down. Up to 10 men and women were crowded into a cell, and left without food and water until they died. It was a unique torture for malefactors. If a prisoner was found guilty of a crime, say taking a loaf of bread or trying to escape, they were taken to a starvation cell, and to put anyone else off the idea, 10 others were selected at random to suffer the same fate. Our guide took us into the block, and with a voice of detached charm, began to describe the suffering of those who went into the cells. The final sentence of his presentation was, “as you pass through, you will see the cell in which Maximilian Kolbe died”. As those words sunk in, I felt squeezed, but from below. The crushing weight from above was being pushed away like the stone from the tomb. Tears seeped from my eyes. I felt human again.

St Maximilian Kolbe was a Franciscan monk, and a priest. He was a great missionary who spent most of his life spreading devotion to Mary Immaculate. He was very adept in using the most up to date forms of communication to spread the message. If he were alive today, he’d be all over Twitter, Facebook, Instragram and Snapchat (maybe). This got him known, and in occupied Poland, it got him known by the Nazis. So like 2 million or so other undesirables, Jews, gypsies, blacks, gays, nuns, monks, priests, he was sent to Auschwitz. He was unlucky, he was one of the 25% percent spared instant liquidation in the gas chamber. He was sent to labour, and this was a fate worse than death. This was death on legs. This was daily death. No wonder so many men and women threw themselves against the electric fence; in the face of such inhuman treatment, taking your own life was at least a human act.

There was something different about Maximilian, and maybe this was why he was singled out for special ‘treatment’ by his captors. They beat him harder than others, they trod him underfoot. But there was light behind the eyes. It is easier to mistreat someone when you don’t see them as ‘someone’. This was the Nazi genius, if you can call it that. Maximilian stared back with a human face, with compassion, with love, and witnessed to the fact that it was they, not their prisoners, who had lost their humanity. He naturally attracted followers and made friends among his fellow labourers. He made them feel human again.

One day, a few months into his captivity, Maximilian was herded into a group outside the starvation block. A man had been caught, trying to escape. The commandant walked among the number – “this one, that one, the one over there” – until he had his 10. Maximilian wasn’t one of them. One of the 10 began to weep. He had a family. Maximilian stepped forward.

“I would like to take this man’s place. He has a wife and children.”

“Who are you?”

“A priest.”

And so Fr Maximilian was taken with 9 others, stripped naked, and bundled into  cell 18. After a few days, moans turned into screams as hunger and extreme thirst robbed the inmates of their sanity. Not in cell 18. They were singing Psalms. Even in hell, the voice of praise was ascending to heaven like incense. A light shone in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it. Fr Maximilian was helping these men to die with dignity, because he knew as certainly as anyone knows anything, that they were children of God.

As I stared into the cell, at the burning candle, I remembered the scripture excerpt I had chosen on my ordination card:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. The life I now live, I live by faith in Christ, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)

I felt shame, because at that moment I knew the difference. My life was grey and bland because those words were only a passionate ideal; an idea that I like, an idea that I preach, but that is all. St Maximilian Kolbe embodied those words. He actively chose the death of Christ, every day, and his light shone, unconquerable even in the blackest darkness.

I would like to say that I left that place fully determined to pick up the cross, to double my prayers and to do penance, to stride across the world proclaiming the Gospel. I didn’t. I just know that there is no other option. Jesus did not demand part of me, he demanded everything. The light will only shine if the cross is carried. Hope springs where the tree of life is planted.

I went back to Krakow, we had an hour before leaving for the airport. I was desperate for confession. I went into the Franciscan Church nearby and checked the schedule. Confessions were just about to start. I asked the confessor if he spoke English and he said no. My heart sank, but then he said “but I do speak Italian”. Perfect. It is probably the worst attempt at confession I’ve ever made, but at the end, the priest said these words to me I will never forget:

“Father, did you make a point of choosing this Church for confession?”

“No. I just came in hoping really”

“Oh. Fr Kolbe lived here. He said Mass here. There are no coincidences. Change your life”

So I am haunted. Haunted by a great burden. I found it in the darkness. The light shone, a witness to the dignity that God has given to his creatures. It is the burden of Glory.

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