To the Editor:
George E. Ehrlich [Letters from Readers, July] is quite correct to point out that the man for whom Maximilian Kolbe sacrificed his life was a father who survived Auschwitz to raise his family, but was not a Jew. His statement that Kolbe was “a rabid anti-Semite,” however, appears to me to overstate the evidence.
Studies of Kolbe’s works done at the time of his beatification, for example by the Holocaust Studies Center in Saint Louis, have shown that the half-dozen or so negative references to Jews in Kolbe’s voluminous writings consist of glancing statements about what was considered a Masonic-Jewish opposition to Catholicism. And it was shown that one of Kolbe’s magazines, apparently while he was away in the missions, did indeed publish blatantly anti-Semitic literature.
Kolbe’s own, consistent approach, however, was that Jews should be loved and prayed for, in the hope that they would be attracted to Christianity. On several occasions, writing in this vein, Kolbe actively opposed suppressive measures or violence against Jews.
Similarly, it was reported that the Holy See’s investigation confirmed not only Kolbe’s staunch public opposition to Nazism (the reason he was sent to Auschwitz), but also the fact that he was instrumental in opening the doors of the monasteries of his order to Jews attempting to escape persecution. These are hardly the attitudes or actions of a “rabid anti-Semite,” although Kolbe’s theological attitude was understandably pre-Vatican II.
On this as on other matters of historical memory, I can only repeat a plea that I made some years ago. Before we reach judgments about each other, especially with reference to the events of the Holocaust, the Jewish and Catholic communities need to sit down together and develop what I called a “dialogical methodology” for sifting through all the available evidence. We are at present at great risk of creating two separate and conflicting sets of memories etched in stark tones of black and white; actual history, however, most often takes place in shades of gray.
If one follows the criteria outlined by Yad Vashem, as I presume George Ehrlich does, it is quite reasonable to withhold the title “righteous Gentile” from Kolbe. But it may also be reasonable, from a different perspective on the same historical events, for Catholics to venerate him as a “Saint,” a title which has its own criteria. Conversely, one could make a case that Oskar Schindler is rightly remembered as a “righteous Gentile” by Jews, but might not qualify to be named a Saint by his own Church.
Eugene J. Fisher
National Conference of Catholic Bishops