The lieutenant knew it was dangerous. His country had been invaded just a few days before. The overcast Polish night, even darker under the canopy of trees, suited the many dark thoughts coursing through his mind. Suddenly, the sound of German voices and loud commands realized his fears: surrounded with his patrol; and now captured.
As the commanding officer, he was interrogated. Though he spoke fluent German, he pretended not to know a word. So a young German soldier who knew Polish was brought in as an interpreter. The lieutenant was amazed to hear this young man lying to spare him: no, he is not an officer; it is just a borrowed jacket; this man knows nothing of value. Amid the confusion of those early days of the occupation of Poland, the interrogators believed him. After they had left, the lieutenant asked this young man, about his own age and supposedly his enemy: “Why did you do that? Why did you lie to save me?” The soldier said simply: “Because I am a Christian.”
He was eventually sent to Auschwitz, the same death camp that shone with the witness of hope and charity of St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and countless other names lost to history, but not to God. He had many other incomprehensible sufferings at Auschwitz over the next four and a half years — I cannot adequately imagine it. But because it began this way, with a demonstration that Christ’s light could reach even into that misery, he managed to survive where so many others did not.
I share this story as I heard it firsthand from Dr. Marian Krzyzaniak. He was that lieutenant. If you are a diligent student of business economics, you may have heard of him — a proud son of Poland, an internationally published economist, and by then a retired professor from Houston’s Rice University after some 30 years.
By the time I met him, he was largely forgotten by the world, struggling toward the end of his life with Parkinson’s disease and cancer. The blue forearm tattoo with his prisoner number was still clearly visible, declaring: You are no longer someone, just a thing labeled for cruel convenience. But in the face of fear and torture and the threat of death, in the midst of such a dark time, the light of God’s love pierced the blackness. A stranger who was supposed to hate him saw him that day, as a brother. Respect for who he was in God’s eyes literally saved his life in that interrogation room.
The scene shifts 19 centuries. The woman knew it was dangerous. Her dark reputation preceded her, and she was risking her life, too, in entering Simon’s house, surrounded by accusers who might easily reach for stones. But she simply had to see Simon’s guest, driven by a hope stronger than her fear. She made a scene that embarrassed and shocked … tears of remorse, wiped with her hair, bathed the Rabbi’s feet, which were then kissed and anointed. But here, it was not Simon who interrogated the Rabbi; instead, the Rabbi asked Simon a single question: “Do you see this woman?”
Do you see this woman? It is not just a rhetorical lead-in to the lesson Jesus taught about mercy and gratitude (Luke 7:36-50); it is a question we might hear each time we face another. Do you see this person? Do you actually see him or her, in three dimensions, in the complexity of a personal history and the dignity of a child of God? Or do you see only an adversary, a problem, a complication, someone whose conduct or ideas make him or her unworthy of respect or even courtesy?
There is arguably no such thing as “respect for life” — in the abstract, that is. There is only respect for persons who are given the gift of life, just as we are — respect that sees the other as one also made in the very image of God.
It has been almost 50 years since abortion was legalized in the United States. Legal and cultural debates have raged around protection for innocent life and competing claims of rights and freedoms across generations now. But what a genuinely pro-life position must never lose is the question Jesus asked Simon: “Do you see this person?”
The embryo may be hidden from the human eye, but insight understands the presence of a human life in the womb. Yet even those readily visible can go unseen in the way most vital to human worth — persons with dementia, or disabilities, or addictions, or depression; persons whose political leanings or national origin or social status or accent trouble us; or persons so close to us that we take them for granted.
Do you see this person? That question is the root of respect for life. Categories and labels are a natural coping mechanism in an overwhelmingly complex world. But when we view people only through convenient labels, even if not with cruel intent, we risk obliterating the humanity of the other; and with it, something of our own.
Father Tom Knoblach is pastor of Sacred Heart in Sauk Rapids and Annunciation in Mayhew Lake. He also serves as consultant for health care ethics for the Diocese of St. Cloud.
Top photo: Adobe stock
MINNESOTA CATHOLIC PODCASTS
Topic: Palliative care
As part of Respect Life Month, we feature a conversation with Dr. Merryn Jolkovsky, palliative care specialist at CentraCare-St. Cloud Hospital. Jolkovsky explains how palliative care provides patients with relief from the symptoms, pain and stress of serious illness and improves their quality of life.
Listen to the podcast at: https://bit.ly/3FaqSq1. You also can subscribe to Minnesota Catholic Podcasts on iTunes or Google Play.