Today, August 14th, is a day of remembrance for Maximilian Kolbe. Let me share with you his Holocaust experience.
Father Kolbe was a Catholic priest and Franciscan friar in Poland. During the German occupation of Poland, he remained at Niepokalanów, a monastery that housed 650 friars. Many Polish refugees and Jews sought sanctuary in the monastery, where Kolbe and the community helped to hide, feed and clothe 3,000 souls.
On 17 February 1941, Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo for hiding Jewish people. After a brief internment in a notorious Polish prison, he was sent to Auschwitz concentration camp and branded prisoner #16670. On June 15, he was able to send a letter to his mother: “Dear Mama, At the end of the month of May I was transferred to the camp of Auschwitz. Everything is well in my regard. Be tranquil about me and about my health, because the good God is everywhere and provides for everything with love.”
Just one month later, three prisoners appeared to have escaped from the camp; as a result, the Deputy Commander of Auschwitz ordered 10 men to be chosen to be starved to death in an underground bunker. When one of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, heard he was selected, he cried out “My wife! My children!” At this point, Kolbe volunteered to take his place.
The Nazi commander replied, “What does this Polish pig want?”
Father Kolbe pointed with his hand to the condemned Franciszek Gajowniczek and repeated: “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place because he has a wife and children.”
Rather surprised, the commander accepted Kolbe in place of Gajowniczek. Gajowniczek later said: “I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me – a stranger. Is this some dream? I was put back into my place without having had time to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this. The news quickly spread all round the camp. It was the first and the last time that such an incident happened in the whole history of Auschwitz.”
Father Kolbe never asked for anything and did not complain. He led the starving prisoners in prayer and singing of hymns. After two weeks, most of the prisoners were dead, but Father Kolbe remained kneeling in the center of the cell. One of the SS guards remarked: this priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him…” Wanting the cell to be emptied, the SS guards killed father Kolbe through lethal injection, and he was cremated in August, 1941.
He was canonized as a Confessor of the Faith and ultimately as a saint of the Catholic Church in 1981. Present at his canonization was Franciszek Gajowniczek who miraculously survived Auschwitz to tell the world of Maximilian Kolbe.