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 have long admired Maximilian Kolbe for a lot of reasons. The most famous story about him is that of his martyrdom, when he stepped forward to offer himself in place of a married man with children.
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.
For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of Maximilian. By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant. But now, on reflection, I understood that a man like him could not have done otherwise. Perhaps he thought that as a priest his place was beside the condemned men to help them keep hope. In fact he was with them to the last.
Testimony of Franciszek Gajowniczek,for whom Maximilian Kolbe offered himself at Auschwitz
Before World War II, Kolbe traveled to Asia and throughout Europe teaching and preaching the Gospel. He used the latest technology with the most modern printing and radio techniques. He planned to begin a motion picture studio. And then he was imprisoned in 1941 by the Nazis. He was known for walking among the bunks at night, quietly saying, "I am a Catholic priest. Can I do anything for you?"
When a prisoner escaped, Franciszek Gajowniczek was one of the ten men chosen for death in retaliation. He sobbed, "My poor wife! My poor children! What will they do?
Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward before the commandant and said, "I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children."
It took the prisoners over two weeks to die, imprisoned with no food or water, but the sounds of hymns and prayers came from the room until only Father Kolbe was left. The room was needed for more prisoners so he was killed by injection and his body was burned in the crematorium. I often think of what a blessing his presence was and what a difference he made in helping those men in their ordeal.
Maximilian Kolbe was canonized in 1982 by Pope John Paul II and declared a martyr of charity. He is the patron against drug addiction and for drug addicts, families, prisoners, journalists, and the pro-life movement. He was declared "The Patron Saint of Our Difficult Century" by Saint Pope John Paul II.
I think of the problems we face in our culture, the technology we have available to use in spreading the good news, the choices we sometimes are faced with ... and Maximilian Kolbe is modern enough to be a shining example of how to show God's love and truth.
Truly Saint Maximilian Kolbe is a saint for our time.
More indepth reading:
- Eye witness testimony from Auschwitz
- Maximilian Kolbe: Catholic Subversive by The Anchoress. This is a good overview of Kolbe's life.
- Meet the man St. Maximilian Kolbe Replaced in Auschwitz by Deacon Greg Kandra
- Catholic Culture has tons of wonderful resources: articles, prayers, recipes, activities and links.