Of course they know and love Chopin. Yet there is a Polish name that strikes a chord better than Copernicus or Skłodowska-Curie, especially in a part of Japan that suffered one of the greatest horrors on Earth. That name is Zenon Żebrowski; but it all started with a saint worthy of his own article – Maximilian Kolbe.
When Kolbe was getting ready to build a monastery in Teresin near Warsaw in 1927, he needed responsible people he could trust with a number of tasks. His right hand man was a novice, Władysław Żebrowski, who took on the name of Zenon upon making his vows entering the friary. Żebrowski’s life bore striking resemblance to the life of St. Francis of Assissi himself – he was also born to a rather wealthy family, had a father focused on making money, but a mother caring more for his spiritual well-being. He had not been particularly spiritual himself, until one day he listened to a homily at a mass that made him rethink his ways and, eventually, enter a friary.
Zenon was quickly recognized as a zealous friar, good organizer and administrator, with a certain facility for interpersonal relations with people of all states and trades. He helped with publishing “Knight of the Immaculate”, a monthly magazine established by Maximilian Kolbe, and supervised the construction site of what later became the largest Franciscan monastery of that time – Niepokalanów (“Town of the Immaculate”). But Kolbe’s spirit was restless, he felt the call to go on a mission to the Far East, so he took Zenon and a few others, and on the 26th of February 1930 they left Poland.
After a short episode in Shanghai, they arrive in Nagasaki on 24th April, where Zenon made his perpetual vows a year later. Several months of acclimatization were enough to start publishing “Knight of the Immaculate” in Japanese under the name of “Seibō no kishi” and look for a parcel to set up the Japanese version of the town of the Immaculate. Kolbe had two options: an attractive square close to the city centre, in a district where many Japanese Catholics lived, and a larger spot, on a mountain slope, away from Nagasaki, and surrounded by gentiles. When visiting the former spot, St. Maximilian enigmatically said that it would soon be destroyed by a ball of fire so they could not build there. After a lot of prayer, he decided on the latter spot. When the atomic bomb was falling on Nagasaki on 9th August 1945, evaporating the Catholic district together with a major part of the city, Maximilian Kolbe had already given his life in Auschwitz.
Yet, the mountain slope had protected the spot where the monastery had eventually been built, and brother Zeno, as the Japanese called Żebrowski, was left to witness the horror. He was so moved by the suffering that he rushed to bring help, disregarding the threats of exposing himself to radiation. He helped to organize food, shelter and blankets but also did things of a much larger scope. He set up a number of orphanages, one of which was even visited by the Japanese emperor Hirohito, but he did not limit himself to Nagasaki. In 1951, he was taking care of over 6000 poor and homeless in Tokyo, then helped in Hiroshima. He travelled so much and was becoming more and more recognizable across the country that in 1953 he even received a free ticket to travel anywhere he wanted from the Japanese railway company.
The Japanese held him in great esteem. Many volunteers followed his lead, even though the very concept of volunteer work was alien to their culture. In 1969, he was even given the Order of the Sacred Treasure, a major Japanese decoration awarded by the emperor himself. There were many photography exhibitions focused on brother Zeno’s work, where he was often invited. At one of them, he even met the current emperor Akihito when he was a boy. Finally, in 1979, Zenon Żebrowski had a monument built in his honour, while he was still alive.
Even though he was asked to return to Poland permanently when he was visiting his homeland on his way to the beatification of St. Maximilian, he refused to leave Japan and eventually died there on 24th April 1982, exactly 52 years after setting his foot on the Kyūshū island. Thousands attended his funeral. A few books, a movie and even an anime for children (“Zeno kagiri naki ai ni” – “Zenon – boundless love” – 1998) were produced to help keep Zenon in the memory of future generations of many countries. It still remains vivid in the hearts of the Japanese.