From Auschwitz to Iraq

Posted: Jan 28, 2005 12:00 AM

In 1941, a monk named Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to take the place of another condemned prisoner at Auschwitz. Six decades later, a young man serving in Iraq?a soldier inspired by Father Kolbe?sacrificed his life when he volunteered to take the place of another soldier.

The story of this heroic young man?the son of a dear friend of ours in Prison Fellowship?is one we should tell our children as we mark the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz this week.

Twenty-year-old Thomas Doerflinger grew up in a home in which human dignity was vigorously defended. His father, Richard, is a bioethics expert who speaks out against abortion, cloning, and other assaults against human dignity. Some of those who knew the blond, blue-eyed Thomas questioned why this bright young man chose military service. His father says Thomas had no interest in a soft and easy life; he sought instead a life of deprivation and duty, service and sacrifice. And he wanted to help free the citizens of Iraq?people who?d spent decades living under tyranny and terror.

Years earlier, Thomas had offered a hint of his future plans. When he was confirmed into the Catholic Church, he took the name Maximilian Kolbe.

As Austin and Cathy Ruse write in the National Catholic Register, nobody takes Kolbe?s name lightly. ?At a time in the world when courage mattered most, Kolbe did not hesitate,? they note. ?He offered himself up to the starvation bunker in exchange for a man with a family. You take the name of Kolbe because you hold self-sacrifice and the love of fellow man in the highest regard.?

Last November, the vehicle Thomas was assigned to, a Stryker armored personnel carrier, was undergoing repairs. Another Stryker was headed for Mosul, which had been overrun by terrorists. But the crew was one man short. Would Thomas be willing to take his place?

While he was under no obligation to go, Thomas was known for volunteering. He offered to serve as a rear rifleman to provide cover for the other men.

On November 11, the Stryker rumbled into Mosul. Thomas jumped out?and soon after was ushered into eternity, cut down by a sniper?s bullet.

What motivates young men to make such a sacrifice, not only for their country and their comrades, but on behalf of strangers longing for freedom?

An answer comes from another Thomas. In the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas put his discussion of just war in his chapter on charity and the love of God. Centuries later, John Calvin echoed his thoughts, calling the soldier an ?agent of God?s love? and soldiering justly a ?God-like act.? Far from viewing war as a ?necessary evil,? Calvin said that ?restraining evil out of love for neighbor? imitates God?s restraining evil out of love for humanity.

Thomas Doerflinger?s death reminds us that the cost of restraining evil is heartbreakingly high. On the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we should pray for those who bear the cost of protecting our country?and who are willing to liberate another persecuted people.

Like Maximilian Kolbe, at a time when courage mattered most, Thomas Doerflinger did not hesitate.

For further reading and information:

In The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler?s Gathering Storm, Joseph Loconte brings together pieces from the most significant religious thinkers of the pre-war period. In these essays, the writers explore issues vibrantly relevant today, including the Christian cause for war, the problem of evil, and America?s role in the world.

Austin Ruse and Cathy Cleaver Ruse, ?The Short, Heroic Life of Thomas Doerflinger,? National Catholic Register, 17 December 2004.

Read messages to Army Spc. Thomas K. Doerflinger on the ?Fallen Heroes of Operation Iraqi Freedom? page.

Gerard Perseghin, ?Army Spc. Doerflinger remembered for caring ways, sacrifice,? Catholic News Service, 23 November 2004.

Thomas Tobin, ?I Haven?t Lost You, My Friend,? Communion and Liberation. (Memories and comments from Army Spc. Doerflinger?s friend and professor.)

Susan Kinzie, ?Family, Friends Mourn a Soldier and a Poet,? WashingtonPost, 20 November 2004, B03.

Stephen Manning, ?Fort Lewis soldier killed in Iraq,? Associated Press. (Reprinted on the ?Honor the Fallen? page of

Berel Lazar, ?Where Is Man?? Wall Street Journal,27 January 2005.

Read about the life of Maximilian Kolbe.

?St. Maximilian Kolbe: Priest hero of a death camp,?

Pius Kamau, ?Learn from courage of ?Hotel?,? Denver Post, 26 January 2005.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Benziger Bros. edition, 1947).

BreakPoint Commentary No. 040531, ?A Soldier?s Valor: Helping and Healing in Iraq.?

BreakPoint Commentary No. 020306, ?Loving Your Neighbor: Just War and Charity.? (Free registration required.)

Joseph Loconte, ?Democracy and Anti-Semitism,? Heritage Foundation,24 January 2005.

Elie Wiesel, ?Bearing Witness, 60 Years On,? Beliefnet,25 January 2005.

Suzanne Fields, ?Remembering Auschwitz at the UN,?,27 January 2005.