The Greater Love of Maximilian Kolbe

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13

When we think about the Holocaust, the first victims that come to mind are Jews. Yet the Nazis also killed many thousands of people from other undesirable groups: disabled people, mentally ill, Gypsies, homosexuals, uncooperative Christians, and others. Maximilian Kolbe was one of them.

Kolbe was born in Russia in 1894 to German and Polish parents. In 1907, he and his brother became illegal immigrants when they crossed into Poland and joined a Franciscan junior seminary. He was later sent to study in Rome and ordained a priest in 1918. While in Rome he founded an evangelistic group called the Militia Immaculata which still exists today. Fr. Kolbe returned to Poland and busied himself launching a new monastery, a seminary, a radio station and several religious publications.

In the 1930s Fr. Kolbe made several mission trips to Japan. While there he founded a monastery on the outskirts of Nagasaki. Against the wishes of the local Shinto people, he insisted it be built on the side of a mountain facing away from the city. This enabled the monastery to survive when most of Nagasaki was destroyed by the atomic bomb in 1945.

During the Second World War, Fr. Kolbe provided shelter to several thousand Polish Jews in his monastery and used his radio skills to broadcast secret messages about German military activities. In 1941, he was arrested and sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

In July 1941, a man from Kolbe's barracks disappeared and was presumed to have escaped. Nazi practice in such cases was to execute ten prisoners for every escapee. Ten were chosen; one cried out in despair that his family needed him. Father Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and offered to take the man's place. His offer was accepted.

The ten were executed in a particularly cruel manner: they were placed in a bunker with no food and water and simply allowed to starve to death. Another prisoner who was forced to help with the execution later described what happened.

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 ..

The date was August 14, 1941. A few months later, another young Polish man entered an underground seminary to study for the priesthood. Like Father Kolbe, he was sent to study in Rome and later returned to Poland to serve the church. His name was Karol Wojtyla, and he went on to become Pope John Paul II. In 1981, the Polish Pope canonized Father Maximilian Kolbe as a martyr and saint.

Among those present at the ceremony was Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man for whom Father Kolbe died. Gajowniczek survived the war and returned to his family. He lived another 53 years before passing away in 1995. Every August 14, he returned to Auschwitz to honor the man who saved his life.

What about the man who escaped, causing the executions? His body was later found in the camp latrine at Auschwitz. He did not escape at all; he simply drowned and disappeared. Did Father Kolbe die for nothing? Certainly not. It is unlikely any of these men would have left Auschwitz alive in any case. They were, at least, allowed to die with Father Kolbe praying by their side.

People sometimes wonder why Catholic priests are celibate. There are many reasons, but one of them is so the priest can offer himself fully as a servant of God's people. Father Kolbe gave himself in the fullest possible sense. In so doing, he preached a message that will survive far longer than anything else he did in his life on Earth.

For further reading:
Catholic Online
Saint of the Day

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