Memorial of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Priest and Martyr


 Saint Maximilian Kolbe (January 8, 1894 – August 14, 1941), was a Polish Conventual Franciscan friar who volunteered to die in place of a fellow prisoner in the Nazi German concentration camp of Auschwitz, located in German-occupied Poland during World War II. 

Kolbe’s life was strongly influenced by a childhood vision of the Virgin Mary that he later described:

"That night, I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked me if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both."

In 1918, Kolbe was ordained a priest. In 1919, he returned to the newly independent Poland, where he was very active in promoting the veneration of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, founding and supervising the monastery of Niepokalanów near Warsaw, a seminary, a radio station, and several other organizations and publications. 

Maximilian Kolbe founded the monthly periodical Rycerz Niepokalanej in 1922 and the Franciscan monastery became a major publishing centre. Kolbe left Poland for Japan in 1930, spending six years there. 

 The monastery began in his absence to publish the daily newspaper, Maly Dziennik, which became Poland’s top-seller. 

Kolbe was accused of anti-semitism based on the content of these newspapers, a claim rejected by most sources. Besides the obvious fact that he sheltered Jewish refugees during the war, the testimony of people who worked close to him is that he respected the Jews: “When Jews came to me asking for a piece of bread, I asked Father Maximilian if I could give it to them in good conscience, and he answered me, ‘Yes, it is necessary to do this because all men are our brothers.’” 

Between 1930 and 1936, he took a series of missions to Japan, where he founded a monastery at the outskirts of Nagasaki, a Japanese paper, and a seminary. The monastery he founded remains prominent in the Roman Catholic Church in Japan. 

Kolbe decided to build the monastery on a mountainside that, according to Shinto beliefs, was not the side best suited to be in harmony with nature. When the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Kolbe’s monastery was saved because the other side of the mountain took the main force of the blast.

During the Second World War, he provided shelter to refugees from Greater Poland, including 2,000 Jews whom he hid from Nazi persecution in his friary in Niepokalanów.

On 17 February 1941, he was arrested by the German Gestapo and imprisoned in the Pawiak prison. On May 28, he was transferred to Auschwitz as prisoner 16670.

Life of St Maximilian Kolbe. Short video

 Auschwitz had a simple rule regarding escapes.  If a prisoner escaped, ten from his barracks would be murdered.  In July 1941 a man from Father Kolbe’s barracks escaped.  The deputy camp commander SS Hauptsturmfurher (Captain) Karl Fritzsch  came to choose the victims.  Fritzsch was a notable sadist even by SS standards.  On December 24, 1940 he set up a Christmas tree and put beneath it the corpses of inmates.  The ten men chosen would die a horrid death of dehydration and starvation. 

The man who Maximilian Kolbe saved was Franciszek Gajowniczek who survived Auschwitz and died at the age of 94. In his testimony of what happened he said Father Kolbe stepped silently forward, removed his cap, and stood before Fritzsch.  “I am a Catholic priest.  I am old.  He has a wife and children.” Fritszch, not comprehending what was occurring, asked, “What does the Polish pig want?”  

 “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place because he has a wife and children.” Father Kolbe was taken away with the other ten before he could be thanked by the man he saved.  

Maximilian Kolbe

 “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.
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."
Father Kolbe was taken to Building 13 and locked into a room to die. This is the testimony of Bruno Borgowiec, who also survived Auschwitz.

“The ten condemned to death went through terrible days. From the underground cell in which they were shut up there continually arose the echo of prayers and canticles. The man in-charge of emptying the buckets of urine found them always empty. Thirst drove the prisoners to drink the contents.
Since they had grown very weak, prayers were now only whispered. At every inspection, when almost all the others were now lying on the floor, Father Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the centre as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men.Father Kolbe never asked for anything and did not complain, rather he encouraged the others, saying that the fugitive might be found and then they would all be freed. 

One of the SS guards remarked: "this priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him."Two weeks passed in this way. Meanwhile one after another they died, until only Father Kolbe was left. This the authorities felt was too long. The cell was needed for new victims. 

So one day they brought in the head of the sick-quarters, a German named Bock, who gave Father Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid in the vein of his left arm. Father Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, himself gave his arm to the executioner. Unable to watch this I left under the pretext of work to be done. Immediately after the SS men had left I returned to the cell, where I found Father Kolbe leaning in a sitting position against the back wall with his eyes open and his head drooping sideways. His face was calm and radiant.”

Fellow prisoner Jerzy Bielecki declared later that Father Kolbe’s death was “a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength. It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp.” Kolbe had written to his mother from Auschwitz earlier that summer, “Do not worry about me or my health, for the good Lord is everywhere and holds every one of us in his great love.”  

 Father Kolbe died at the age of 47 on August 14, 1941, and his remains were cremated on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.

On October 10th, 1982, Pope John Paul II – himself a Polish seminarian at the time of the Nazi occupation – canonized Maximilian Kolbe as a martyr of charity and
declared him “The Patron Saint of Our Difficult Century.”Franciszek Gajowniczek, the young man whose life he had saved, and his wife, children, and grandchildren were in Rome for this celebration.  
 He is the patron saint of drug addicts, political prisoners, families, journalists, prisoners, and the pro-life movement. Due to Kolbe's efforts to promote consecration and entrustment to Mary, he is known as the Apostle of Consecration to Mary.

He is one of ten 20th-century martyrs who are depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, London.

Image source
 From left to right...
 Maximilian Kolbe, Manche Masemola, Janani Luwum, Elisabeth von Hessen-Darmstadt, Martin Luther King, Óscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Esther John, Lucian Tapiedi und Wang Zhiming.

Related posts

Click here for details of a new production of a play on Kolbe, scheduled to open at the Leicester Square Theatre, London on 1st October 2013.

Click here for Stained Glass Window with beautiful quote from Maximilian Kolbe

Click here for more extensive details and quotes, prayers, novenas

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