In 1941, about 2,000 prisoners at Auschwitz were told that because someone had escaped, ten of them would be starved to death. An SS officer pointed to a man here, a man there -- five in all until he selected one, a Pole, who blurted out, "It's a pity I must leave my wife and children." With that, Father Maksymilian Kolbe offered to take the prisoner's place. For that, he died; and for that, in October, he was made a saint.
It was a remarkable act of martyrdom. Kolbe and nine others were taken to a cell and left without food. For two weeks Kolbe survived, ministering to the dying, leading them in prayer and song, until he himself was killed by a lethal injection.
Almost immediately, Kolbe became a legend. But another legend of sorts haunts his memory -- that he was also an anti-Semite. The evidence is in his writings. In 1926, already a prominent Polish intellectual and cleric, Kolbe wrote that he considered Freemasons "an organized clique of fanatical Jews, who want to destroy the church."
Thirteen years later, Kolbe returned to the subject: "Atheistic communism seems to rage every more widely. Its origin can easily be located in the criminal mafia that calls itself Freemasonry, and the hand that is guiding all that towards a clear goal is international Zionism. Which should not be taken to mean that even among Jews one cannot find good people." He believed, according to a church expert, in the authenticity of that notorious anti-Semitic forgery, "The Protocols of Zion," and thought that Jews were disproportionately represented in Polish economic life -- at the expense of Christians.
In his writings, Father Kolbe proved himself to be a man of his times. By those standards, and judged by what was to follow, he was no extremist, and, in fact, warned his followers not to go too far. He did not call for the extermination of Jews, but neither did he join those in Poland at the time who denounced anti-Semitism.
His moderation, in effect, is the defense of him. But without denigrating his martyrdom, it nevertheless remains a fact that the Holocaust did not take place in a vacuum. The virtual extermination of European Jewry was accomplished with either the cooperation or the indifference of native populations. The Germans did not do it alone.
It's unfair to blame Father Kolbe for the Holocaust that he neither wanted nor, probably, could envision. But it is not unfair to say that he and others like him provided a hospitable enviroment for it. By propagating anti-Semitism, they set the stage for the unimaginable horror that was to follow.
In selecting Father Kolbe for sainthood, the church overlooked this. It had, its spokesmen say, a higher purpose -- the celebration of Kolbe's martyrdom -- and it is one that should be respected. But in doing that, it has shown contempt for history by treating Kolbe's anti-Semitism as a negligible blemish in an otherwise admirable life. Kolbe presumably found out at Auschwitz that there is no such thing as negligible anti-Semitism -- although church spokesmen could cite no evidence he explicitly renounced his earlier views.
Few people are all good or all bad. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned slaves at a time when others would not. Yet they remain revered and there is nothing wrong with that. It is possible to admire a person for some qualities and not for others.
But sainthood is a different matter. It connotes perfection -- a life worthy of emulation. In an important area, Kolbe's life was not only unworthy of emulation but cries out -- especially with the recent increase in anti-Semitic incidents -- for condemnation. Instead, it was swept under the carpet.
The question of what makes a saint is obviously a difficult one. In Kolbe's case, he was an extraordinary man -- selfless and, towards the end of this life, an opponent of the Holocaust. But that does not alter the impression that once again anti-Semitism has been viewed as insignificant. In that sense, Kolbe's selection is inappropriate. The church meant only to honor the "saintly" part of his life. Unfortunately, it may also have excused the bad.