Thursday, April 5, 2012


Wednesday night I attended a screening and panel discussion of THE LABYRINTH, a 37-minute award-winning documentary about Marian Kolodziej by Ron, Jason, Gregory and Arthur Schmidt. (Fr. Ron Schmidt, S.J., was married before he became a priest; his three sons by his late wife collaborated with him on the film).

The program was entitled Blood and Ink.

Kołodziej was a well-known theater artist an Polish resistance fighter during WWII who was arrested by the Nazis and arrived in the first transport of prisoners to Auschwitz. There he lived, as No. 432 (the inmates were stripped of even their names), for 4 1/2 years. For almost fifty years afterward he kept silence, telling no-one besides his beloved wife Halina that he had even been in the camp. "I did not speak about Auschwitz," he observed. But nevertheless throughout that whole time Auschwitz was present in everything I did." Then, in 1993, he had a stroke and, as part of his rehabilitation, began drawing. A "mysterious presence" pushed him to continue. He found himself in dialogue with "living memory."

The result was a stupendous outpouring of drawings, filling many rooms, that he called "The Labyrinth." "...This is not an exhibit, nor art, nor images, but words contained in designs," he said of his work. They are housed in the basement of St. Maximilian Kolbe Franciscan Church in Harmeze, Poland, located near Auschwitz.

From The Labyrinth website:

"Marian was in the same roll call and cell block as Fr.Maximilian Kolbe, who voluntarily took the place of a prisoner condemned to death and was subsequently executed. This self-less act became legendary in Auschwitz and inspired the entire camp---somehow an act of love and courage stood as a testament to good in the face of overwhelming evil. Marian’s numerous drawings of Kolbe are stark and iconographic. Kolbe is now a saint in the Catholic Church.

This is eyewitness testimony that is unique in the annals of documenting the Holocaust. Marian is a Polish Catholic, who has used his drawings to give testimony to the horrors of Auschwitz and of the world today, and whose body of work provides a testament to suffering and ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’"

"Of my own free will, I shut myself up in the camp once more," I thought of Christ, going into the tomb after three days to raise Lazarus from the dead; of the tremendous courage, heart, and focus required to embark on a similar journey.  Kołodziej himself died on October 13, 2009 at the age of 86.

Strangely, the film is not without hope. Many of the drawings depict small acts of kindness. In the camps, your bowl--a kind of terrible chalice--was everything: the receptacle for watery soup; a pillow; in the freezing-cold nights, a toilet. Once, forced to climb trees to escape the jaws of the snarling guard dogs below (this was apparently a kind of sport for the SS; many of the men, stranded on branches that could not bear their weight, fell to their deaths), Kołodziej climbed so high that for a moment, he could see the gaily painted houses in the village below. The glimpse of a world outside the barbed wire sustained him for years.

"These are my most deeply carved-in wounds. This is my nakedness and shame."

EMIL NOLDE,  1912, oil on canvas


  1. I'm knee deep in Primo Levi again. When I go into one of my periods of reading about the Holocaust, I can think of little else.

  2. I thought of you, Heather, when I read this article just now:

    I don't know if it relates directly to your post here, though the question of what is beautiful, especially in light of our broken humanity, seemed to coincide with much of what you write and think about.

  3. Mark, I so know what you mean: questions; no answers.

    And Patrick, thanks, I love this from the First Things piece: "Perhaps the cross so subverts beauty that it leaves us all suspicious modernists and expressionists who regard beauty as a superficial source of cheap pleasure."

  4. These drawings make me wonder if the "mysterious presence" that moved Kolodziej are the souls of Auschwitz victims asking to be remembered, asking to give witness to evil, lest it should happen
    again. And sadly the evil goes on just as much today. We have genocides, famines, pre-emptive wars, etcetera, etcetera.
    Yesterday, while meditating on the Sorrowful Mysterious, behind closed eyes, my mind kept wandering to the face of a starving, dying African baby.It was as though he/she were one in suffering with Christ. This is where Christ is most of all. In these scenes of utmost horror He is there.
    Thanks for your witness, Heather. Have a Blessed and Holy Easter.

  5. These drawings, as well as the name of your blog and your book, remind me of what Edith Stein wrote for her sisters in the Cologne Carmel for the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, just two weeks after Germany invaded Poland and about three years before she herself perished at Auschwitz:

    "The world is in flames. The conflagration can also reach our house. But high above all flames towers the cross. They cannot consume it. It is the path from earth to heaven...Do you hear the groans of the wounded on the battlefields in the west and the east? You are not a physician and not a nurse and cannot bind up the wounds. You are enclosed in a cell and cannot get to them...Does the lament of the widows and orphans distress you? You would like to be an angel of mercy and help them. Look at the Crucified...Bound to Him, you are omnipresent as He is...You can be at all fronts, wherever there is grief, in the power of the cross. Your compassionate love takes you everywhere, this love from the divine heart. Its precious blood is poured everywhere soothing, healing, saving."

    Good Friday blessings and Easter joy to you now and always!


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