The following is a reflection on a trip I took to Poland to study the growth of anti-democratic sentiment in Europe and its relationship to the rise in anti-Semitism and xenophobia. There I toured Auschwitz where I experienced bone-chilling cold and mud, everywhere, and a relentless twilight gray that somehow managed to feel darker than night. But even in that darkness there was light.
In Auschwitz in 1940 a Polish soldier named Franciszek Gajowniczek was captured and put to work at what was then a forced labor camp, two years before the extermination of European Jews became the single defining cause of the Nazi regime.
Franciszek Gajowniczek was soon selected as one of ten men who would be starved to death in retaliation for the escape of another prisoner. When he was selected, Mr. Gajowniczek cried over the prospect of never seeing his wife and children again and begged the nazis to spare his life. Maximillian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan priest also held prisoner there, offered to take his place. Kolbe's wish was granted.
Mr. Gajowniczek survived Auschwitz. He died in 1995 at age 93, living long enough to witness Maximillian Kolbe's canonization by Pope John Paul II in 1982. It was an event that Mr. Gajowniczek would regard as one of the greatest of his long life.
We much too often point to exceptional acts of human kindness as if they define the human condition, while simultaneously casting the savagery of which we are too often, too commonly, guilty as if they are exotic acts of subhuman demons who by no means represent us. I think this is a terrible mistake. If we are ever to make our way to the utopias we dream of, we absolutely must find it in ourselves to muster the humility, tough as it is, to love our neighbors as ourselves in spite of our worst deeds, while understanding, with deep seriousness, that there are no demons, just ourselves.
But it is also a mistake to overlook the great acts of compassion and heroism of which people are sometimes capable. These acts also speak to who and what we may be. Maximillian Kolbe reclaimed his life by giving it up for another, and, in the course of it, ignited a light in the deepest darkness of human history the memory of which may spark many flames in dark times to come.
We should acknowledge both the dark and the light in human experience, however flattering the light; no matter how relentless the darkness can sometimes seem. And we should ask ourselves why some of us make heroic choices no matter the personal cost, while others, most of us, choose differently.
I think the difference in these moments is made up of magic. The magic of faith, which can make us less fearful, less reactionary in the face of our own mortality; the magic of belief in ecology, social and biological, that can make meaning of our lives in relation to other lives; and the magic of imagination and creativity - that which inspires artists to labor because they feel they have no choice in the matter, feeling constantly haunted by half formed thoughts clamoring to be freed.
Those who are lofted by this kind of magic don't work for fame or fortune. They work because, for them, being in argument about who and what we can be, whether with the public or our children or even ourselves, is what makes life worth living.
Somewhere in the space between these two extremes of human experience you will find me and, I'm sure, most of you. We ordinary people of no remarkable talent or intellect make up most of the world. These others whose genius, whether expressed as invention, interpretation, or simply as kindness, are the bookends that make sense of who we are.
History, I think, is defined in terms of which way we who make up that unremarkable middle choose to lean, and it is these collective decisions that define the course of human history. Making them correctly depends greatly on those whose example constitute the frame. We should honor them for dignifying our lives and choices.
We owe much to people like Maximillian Kolbe, may he rest in peace. Let's honor their memory by leaning toward justice.
Scot Nakagawa is an activist, writer, and relentless conversationalist on matters of social justice. His lifelong ambition is to become the irritating fag who pops out of closets to haunt the dreams of white nationalists everywhere.