I was thirty-one years old, on the cusp of becoming a father and a Christian, when I first learned the story of Maximilian Kolbe. It floored me utterly. It wasn’t the kind of account one could read and then calmly set aside.
I could, if I tried hard, put myself in the shoes of the condemned men. I could imagine myself standing in front of their prison block as Fritzsch walked up and down the line, casually deciding who should live and who should die. I could feel my heart pounding in my throat, my breath speeding up, my mouth drying up, while my fate seesawed on the whims of a demon. I could also imagine sighing a deep sigh of relief when Fritzsch passed me over and allowed me to live.
As a father-to-be, I could imagine how it would have felt to be the prisoner Kolbe saved. But to be the man who volunteers to step into the shoes of one condemned—now, that was something else.
What gripped me the most, what I couldn’t get out of my head once I learned about Kolbe, was how his sacrifice represented a strange yet perfect form of freedom. An ordinary man, once Fritzsch had passed over him in the line, might be stunned by his luck and gobble up the night’s rations all the more eagerly, knowing how close he had come to death. Kolbe, however, climbed the very summit of human freedom. He climbed it—and this is the key to his story, I think—by binding himself to the Cross, by denying and overcoming, with intense spiritual resolve, his natural instinct to survive. His ap- parent surrender became his triumph. And nailed to the Cross, he told his captors, in effect: I’m freer than you. In that time and place of radical evil, in that pitch-black void of inhumanity, Kolbe asserted his moral freedom and radiated what it means to be fully human. —from The Unbroken Thread