Upon our arrival in Zurich (as part of the “Great Retirement Adventure), and after having eaten chocolate for breakfast (see yesterday’s post Feast and Fellowship), we made our way through the old town, past the glorious open- air market that Zurich is so famous for, down to the waterway and docks. Zurich sits on the northern end of Lake Zurich. We wanted to purchase tickets for the ferry for the following morning. There, on the southern end of this large body of water, was the medieval town of Rapperswill—otherwise known as “the City of Roses”.
Thinking that taking the two-hour Ferry ride would be a delightful way to travel down a beautiful lake with views of the Alps, as well as the surrounding woods and small towns, we purchased 3 tickets. It was to be indeed a perfect way to spend the day but one must be aware of the weather in Zurich. One must know before hand if the weather is to be cooperative, for if the weather is poor, which can often be the case, the 40-minute train ride is the better option (which was going to be our transportation back to Zurich later that afternoon). We were fortunate, as this late September day, was cool but the visibility was good. The ferry has indoor, as well as outdoor seating, an offering of light to heavy refreshments with an extensive menu offering. We opted for the hot chocolate.
Rapperswill translates to “city of Roses”. The city is known for the various rose gardens located throughout town, with the most poignant being located in the center of town. It is here, in the city center, that a small garden of roses has been planted for blind residents and visitors alike. Throughout this particular garden area of roses, there are plaques “written” in brail offering explanations for each of the various types of roses. I think this is a truly thoughtful garden—a sensory offering to those who may share in the beauty, not necessarily by sight, but rather in a more intimate way, by scent.
We arrived in Rapperswill without any real plan. We thought we’d just wander throughout the old historic city center. We couldn’t help but notice a fortress up on a hill and decided we would make our way to this “castle” not knowing exactly what it was that we were seeing or particularly what we were looking for.
We climbed our way up to the top of the hill by way of ancient granite steps. Once at the top, we found a beautiful quiet church, which I understand is actually a Capuchin Monastery that dates from the 15th century.
The interior is colorful with a simple beauty. As the church is open for visitors and worshipers alike, it offers a beautifully quiet place for reflection and prayer. Basking in the ancient altarpieces and art work which adorns this medieval church, I sat in awe and found myself wondering about the ones who had created, not only the art work in a time so foreign to our own, but to those who had the vision of erecting a church on this particular bluff. I thank God for their vision, perseverance and desire to share their joy of their deep Faith.
It was, however, what was across the walkway that captured our attention. A castle.
We made our way through the massive stone arch, following the path up a winding walkway lined with beautiful flowers, plants, and fruit trees (figs in particular). The grounds of this “fortress” are manicured with precision; the greenery of the plants, trees and grass, matching the deep blue sky was a beautiful melding of analogous colors. It is here that visitors are offered beautiful views of the steel blue lake.
Thinking we would take a little tour of this castle, we made our way through the gate into a graveled courtyard. Still thinking this was a castle, we wandered inside looking for someone who could maybe provide us with some information. We spied a small sign on the wall: Museum Polskie w Rapperswilu. Ahhh, the Polish Museum I had read about, but here in this castle?
The castle dates to the 1300’s. The Museum has been housed here since the late 1800’s. We found the little ticket office. The woman at the desk spoke no English, and we spoke neither German nor Polish but she handed me three tickets as I hand her a few euros. She also gave me a beautiful hardbound book, written in Polish, showcasing the Museum, it’s contents and its history. I made an offer of more euros to pay for the book but she shook her head, seems it was part of the visit.
When I think of Poland, I think of Karol Wojtyla– Pope John Paul II and Lech Walesa, these two however were but a very small portion of the massive museum. The “museum” wends its way through the once grand rooms and walkways of this mighty fortress. I imagined what it must have been like living here…the massive stonewalls; the spectacular views of the lake and small town…I bet it would be quite drafty and cold in the winter months. This was however early Autumn; all was still green along with some beautiful tinges of color in the leaves creating the anticipation of how beautiful this place must be when Autumn is in full regalia.
Small windows open up throughout the massive stonewalls, once strategic places for bows and arrows as defense of a town, now offers glimpses of a beautiful church/monastery, lake and surrounding cemetery. The cemetery I must add is probably one of the most beautiful cemeteries I have ever seen. It is manicured to perfection. Each grave is adorned with a cross, different from all of the other grave’s crosses.
The individual graves are mini gardens of wonder. Rose trees, moss, living, well maintained, flowers and plants of every description grace each symmetrical grave. There is not space to speak of between the graves. The cemetery sits on a small terrace of land at the base of the castle overlooking the lake. I liken the cemetery to more of a beautiful garden—not a place of sorrow or forgotten loved ones, but rather a nice place to wander.
As we make our way from room to room within the “museum”, our voices and steps on the wooden floor, echoing throughout the hallways, as we are the only visitors this particular day. There are early historical artifacts, period dress and costumes, tributes to famous Poles such as Madame Curie, who I had forgotten was actually Polish. There is also a good bit of information, photographs and paintings as commemorations to Poland’s strong religious foundation—Christian, Orthodox and Jewish. Antique silver menorahs and Kiddush cups sit on display in shadow boxes. Copies of three of Poland’s most famous images of the Madonna grace a small niche.
As we round a corner, taking a turn into another hallway, we are stopped in our tracks. There standing before us is a gated stone arch leading into what appears to be some sort of tomb, burial chamber, or cell. Two large rock relief angels herald, on trumpets, a sort of greeting or foreboding message to those about to enter into the chamber. There on the far wall of the chamber hangs a bronze sculpted crucified body of Christ, bound in chains, no cross, just hanging on the wall. To the right of the crucified Christ is a barred opening, akin to a small jail cell, into the wall.
We enter slowly, not certain as to what we should expect. The sculptured crucified Christ is very moving. It is large, life size and hauntingly beautiful. As we look to our right of the “cell”, we see a large black and white photograph of a man propped up in the barred opening, along with the immediately recognizable gray stripped pajama like uniform from a concentration camp. There is another smaller black and white photograph of the man in the larger picture, wearing the uniform, looking gaunt and almost ghostly.
Immediately I know who this person is, even though I do not know as much about him as I should. It is Father Maximilian Kolbe. I knew that Father Kolbe had given his life in place of a fellow prisoner’s life while interned at one of the Death Camps during the War (remember the War is always WWII). Father Kolbe was a victim of the Holocaust, even though he was a Catholic priest. I made a mental pledge that once I returned home, I would spend some time investigating and getting to know Father Kolbe a bit better.
Fast forward to today.
Once home I went on line and did my typical searching for information concerning Father Kolbe. I bought a couple of books. I am a huge history nut when it comes to World War II. I will one day write about one of my many heroes of this time, in particular Sir Winston Spencer Churchill. But it was Father Kolbe who was holding my attention at the time—as he still holds my attention today.
Father Kolbe was a Catholic Priest in Poland. He was a Franciscan. He traveled extensively early in his vocational career, founding monasteries in places as far away as Japan and India. Upon Return to Poland he opened another monastery, operated a radio station and printing facility to better distribute the Word of God.
When the Germans invaded Poland, Father Kolbe opened the monastery doors to any and all in need of a safe haven. He took in hundreds of refugees with a large number being Jewish. The Nazis discovered Father Kolbe’s printing facility and demanded that he stop the printing and distributing of his “religious propaganda”.
Eventually Father Kolbe was arrested. Thousands of Catholic priests were arrested or out right murdered, along with the thousands of Jews, mentally disabled and physically handicapped from Poland. Father Kolbe was eventually sent to Auschwitz. Where he became known as Prisoner 16770. Because he was both Polish and a priest, this made him a prime target for the wrath of the Nazi guards. He was regularly and viscously beaten. He was ordered to carry out physically demanding chores that his frail body found more and more difficult to conduct. He would often collapse from hunger and exhaustion, invoking only more brutal beatings. However Father Kolbe never complained.
In the evenings, when the prisoners would receive whatever food was to be distributed, Father Kolbe would forego his turn, allowing those whom he deemed hungrier then himself, to take his share. At night, Father Kolbe often chose not to lay down and rest, but rather would make his way throughout the barracks offering prayers and consolation to and for his fellow prisoners.
On one particular day that would prove to have historic repercussions in many ways, a prisoner escaped from Father Kolbe’s unit. When the rare incident of an escape took place at Auschwitz, The Nazis retaliated. It was their custom to take 10 lives for each escaped life. It just so happened that this particular escapee had actually died in camp but by the time the Nazis realized, their reprisal taking was too late. And if the truth be known, it would not have mattered, as the Nazis seemed to relish their “eye for an eye”.
The Nazis chose 10 men. One of the men, Francis Gajowniczek, screamed out in painful protest. He became distraught, concerned for his wife and children if he was to be killed. Father Kolbe stepped forward. The Nazi commander asked what “the polish pig” standing before him wanted. Father Kolbe told the commander that he would voluntarily take the place of the other man as the man had a family who needed him and Father Kolbe was a priest who did not have a wife or children. The Commander agreed.
Father Kolbe and the 9 other men were taken to a starvation cell. They were thrown into the cell and left to die. For two weeks the men languished. Many drank their own urine or licked the damp walls. Instead of cries of hunger and death, the guards heard the singing of hymns, the recitation of prayers and the rosary.
Father Kolbe was often seen standing over the other prisoners, offering them his comfort. When he became to weak to stand or pray in earnest, he could be heard whispering prayers.
After the end of two weeks, 4 of the men were still alive. The Nazis needed the cell and had tired of the waiting. They went into the cell to inject the remaining prisoners with deadly carbolic acid. Father Kolbe was the last living prisoner. As the guard approached him, he readily offered his arm for the injection. He died on August 14, 1941. His body was dumped, along with countless others, into the large crematories to be incinerated.
Francis Gajowniczek survived the war. His wife and children did not. He lived the remainder of his life forever grateful to Father Kolbe. His survival and tribute to Father Kolbe is a deeply touching story. I encourage you to read further about this story of sacrifice, death and life. It is simply amazing.
However, it is my fear that those of us living today, in this oh so modern society of excess, will forget the stories of people like Maximilian Kolbe. They will be the old stories of days long gone. Stories whose relevance to our own lives will sound so foreign. We must always remember the sacrifices made for what it is that we all so enjoy to this day and this simply is our freedom.
The freedom we have to take for granted, to have what we want when we want it, to believe or not to believe. Great sacrifices were made for you and I but I doubt many of us even realize that or give such thoughts much concern. But of course the greatest sacrifice is the one we mark during this Lenten period and soon to be Holy week. May we all take time to remember the countless sacrifices made for us, who enjoy a “free” today.
His fellow Pole, Father Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II, canonized Father Kolbe in 1982.