St. Maximilian Kolbe: Death Camp Hero
The prisoners had been standing for hours in the blazing July heat. Despite flies and exhaustion, no one twitched. Sub-commandant Karl Fritsch shouted, “The fugitive has not been discovered. Ten of you will die by starvation.” He then gleefully selected his victims, like a cat in a barnyard full of mice. He pointed to Sergeant Francis Gajowniczek, who wailed aloud, “My wife! My children! I shall never see them again!” At that moment, another prisoner broke rank and stepped forward. Fritsch instinctively took a step back and reached for his pistol. “Halt! What does this Polish swine want of me?” The man who broke rank said he would take the place of the condemned man. Fritsch took another step backward, as if stunned. “And why?” he asked. “I have no wife or children," said the prisoner, "Besides, I am old and not good for anything. He's in better condition.” “Who are you?” asked Fritsch. “I am a Catholic priest.” Silence. The SS official, known to be unduly rigid, mysteriously acquiesced. Who was this priest, willing to starve to death for another man?
He was born Raymond Kolbe on January 8, 1894, in Zdunska Wola, Poland, to parents who were weavers. As a child, he loved nature, especially planting trees, and performing innocent pranks despite his mother’s reproofs. After one such prank, his exasperated mother exclaimed, “My poor child, what will become of you?”
This time, her words particularly hit the mark. Raymond went behind the kitchen cupboard where there was a small shrine to Our Lady of Czestochowa. He asked the Virgin, “What will become of me?” Later that evening at church, he repeated the same question. The Blessed Virgin appeared to him holding two crowns, one red, and the other white. She asked which he preferred: white, representing purity, or red for martyrdom. Raymond said he wanted both. The Virgin smiled and disappeared.
In the following year, 1907, he joined the Franciscans. He received the name Maximilian when he became a novice in 1910. His superiors took note of his intelligence and sent him to Rome to finish his studies. By his ordination in 1919, (age 25), Fr. Maximilian had two doctorates to his name, one in philosophy and the other in theology.
The Militia Immaculatae
While still a student in 1917, Friar Maximilian witnessed militantly anti-Catholic demonstrations by the Freemasons. In one instance, they placed a banner under the windows of the Vatican that depicted Satan crushing St. Michael the Archangel. His response was to form a spiritual army whose chief weapon was prayer. He named it the Militia Immaculatae. When he returned to Poland in 1919, he sought to increase its membership, particularly among laypersons.
Unfortunately, his health remained precarious due to tuberculosis, which he contracted as a student in Rome. His superiors nonetheless assigned him to teach in the seminary. It wasn’t long, however, that his health broke down and he was sent to a sanitarium at Zakopane to recuperate.
Even as a seminarian, Fr. Maximilian dreamed of a printing apostolate devoted to the “Immaculata,” as the Polish called the Blessed Virgin. In 1922, his superiors gave him space at a friary in Grodno, dedicated to this endeavor. Others joined him, necessitating larger quarters. In 1927, he founded a larger monastery near Warsaw, which he named Niepokalanów, “City of the Immaculata.”
Fr. Maximilian had a very technical mind and ability to organize. He implemented the latest technology to print several daily newspapers and weekly magazines. Circulation was widespread as the newspapers were free – subscribers gave donations if they wished. By December of 1938, the friary printed over a million copies of the Knight of the Immaculata.
In 1931, Fr. Maximilian established a foundation in Nagasaki, Japan. Notably, he built the monastery on the north side of a mountain, which the Shinto priests advised was not in harmony with nature. When the atomic bomb dropped on the city in 1945, however, the monastery was one of the few buildings to remain standing due to the mountain’s protection. Because of health concerns, Fr. Maximilian returned to Poland in 1936.
Health was not his only worry, however, as war loomed on the horizon. This became a reality as the German army invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The Gestapo arrested Fr. Kolbe on September 19 but released him on December 8. When he returned to the monastery, he sheltered 3200 refugees, 1200 of whom were Jewish.
The brothers still published, including anti-Nazi propaganda. The Gestapo responded on Feb. 17, 1941. They arrested Fr. Maximilian and four other priests and sent them to Pawiak prison. While in the Pawiak prison, Fr. Kolbe had a particular ability to calm nerves as he didn’t have any fear about him. One day, an SS guard rushed into the cell, enraged that Fr. Maximilian was wearing his Franciscan habit with a rosary hanging from the rope cincture.
The guard walked up to the Fr. Maximilian, seized his rosary, and berated him. Fr. Maximilian didn’t say a word. The guard held up the crucifix and said, “Do you believe in that?” “Yes, I believe,” answered Father Kolbe calmly. The man struck him hard in the face. “You really believe, eh?” “Yes, I believe.” With each affirmation, the SS man hit Fr. Kolbe violently in the face until he saw that he was getting nowhere. He stormed out and slammed the door.
After the man left, Fr. Kolbe paced in the cell, his face badly pummeled. One Jewish prisoner felt deeply shaken by what he witnessed. Fr. Kolbe went up to comfort him, “Please, I beg you, don’t be upset.” He assured him that it was really nothing and that he offered his sufferings to the Immaculata. Unfortunately, he contracted pneumonia while interned in this prison.
The Death Camp
On May 28, a train brought 320 prisoners from Pawiak to Auschwitz. One survivor, Ladislaus Sweis, recalls the depressive atmosphere of the windowless, airless boxcars; “Suddenly to my surprise and joy, somebody started singing,” he remembers, “Immediately I took up the melody as did the others.” The person who started the melody was Fr. Maximilian who in a matter of hours became Auschwitz prisoner #16670.
For some unknown reason, the Nazis had a ferocious hatred of priests. Among the guards were 30 capos. These were hard-core German criminals given the opportunity to become soldiers by first working as guards. The prisoners especially dreaded the capos for their diabolical cruelty. For instance, they clubbed many priests to death for refusing to trample upon a crucifix.
Fr. Maximilian’s first assignment was in building a crematorium. Due to his health ailments, he worked slowly. Once when he was pushing a barrel full of gravel that was beyond his strength, another prisoner offered to help. A capo noticed them speaking and each prisoner received ten hard whacks with a stick. Fr. Maximilian didn’t utter a moan. The capo then made them carry their loads with the other prisoner on top.
Tree Trunk Assignment
From this work, Fr. Kolbe’s next assignment was to clear fields of tree trunks. The supervisor for this work squad was “Krott the Bloody,” known for his psychotic hatred of priests. He forced the workers to carry heavy loads at a jog. If they fell or slowed down, they received a beating. Fr. Maximilian worked on this squad for two weeks, carrying loads far heavier than non-priests.
One day, Krott the Bloody singled out Fr. Kolbe as his victim. He loaded him with heavy branches and forced him to run. When Fr. Maximilian fell, Krott kicked him mercilessly in the face and stomach. Then he said, “You don’t want to work, you weakling! I’ll show you what work means.” He then called two strong guards who gave him fifty lashes.
Fr. Kolbe lay motionless after this. Krott thought he was dead and so threw him in the mud and piled sticks on top of him. When it was time to return to the camp, other prisoners carried Fr. Kolbe to the hospital. His pneumonia flared up along with a high fever, but his indomitable spirit impressed the hospital staff.
Spiritually, in spite of his physical suffering, he was completely healthy, serene and balanced in disposition, and extraordinary in character. Every day, I met hundreds of prisoners from all walks of life – priests, professors, princes, artists, - I never saw another man like him in Auschwitz or outside Auschwitz, for that matter.— Rudolf Diem, a doctor at Auschwitz
A hospital orderly named Conrad Szweda recalls how other prisoners would crawl to Fr. Kolbe’s bunk for confession or spiritual help. Conrad, who suffered from deep depression, says that Fr. Maximilian many times encouraged him; “I owe a great deal to his motherly heart.”
In the dog eat dog arena of concentration camp life, a small chunk of bread meant everything. In some cases, it meant life or death. It is even more astonishing then, that Fr. Maximilian gave away his food portion regularly. Indeed, others wondered how he survived. A fellow prisoner says, for instance, “I recall how in front of the Block, Fr. Maximilian once gave his entire serving of soup to one of the prisoners who was young ‘Take it. Eat it. You are younger; you at least must live.’”
He often exhorted the others to let go of hatred toward the Nazis. “Only love is creative,” he often said. One young Jewish prisoner, Sigmund Gorson, lost his entire family in Auschwitz. He felt extremely lonesome and sought for some human connection. Fr. Maximilian sensed it and befriended him. “He was like an angel to me. Like a mother hen, he took me in his arms. He used to wipe away my tears…not only did I love Maximilian Kolbe very, very much in Auschwitz, where he befriended me, but I will love him until the last moments of my life.”
Fr. Maximilian boldly did what few other priests had the courage to do – give conferences and hold prayer services. On free periods after work or on Sundays, he gathered a number of prisoners together and gave them spiritual pep talks. He understood that if the Nazis succeeded in breaking down their spirit they would have less chance to survive.
Countless eyewitnesses say the same thing: Fr. Maximilian was a magnet. “He won us over with his love,” says Alexander Dziuba, “There seemed to be some superior power that emanated from him. When he spoke to us of God, we had the impression of someone who was not of this earth.”
Mieczyslaus Koscielniak was an artist who remembers the strength that these conferences provided. “Uplifted in spirit, we returned to our blocks repeating his words, ‘We will not break down, we will survive for sure, they will not kill the Polish spirit in us.’”
The Heroic Gift
Fr. Maximilian’s self-gift culminated on that late July day, as he offered his life for Sergeant Francis Gajowniczek. Another prisoner who survived Auschwitz was Bruno Borgowiec, the penal block interpreter. He recalls how the SS ordered the prisoners to strip naked before entering the starvation bunker in the basement of Block 13. As the guard slammed the door to the bunker, he mocked them, “You’ll dry up like tulips.”
Every day, the SS inspected the cell. Bruno Borgowiec was responsible for removing any corpses and the urine bucket, which, alas, was dry every time. He therefore saw Fr. Kolbe every day, and later wrote a detailed account of his experience. He said that Fr. Maximilian calmed the men who were in a frenzied state. Before long, Fr. Maximilian was leading them in prayers and hymns, which prisoners from adjoining rooms heard and joined in. “Father Kolbe led,” says Bruno Borgowiec, “while the others responded as a group. As these fervent prayers and hymns resounded in all corners of the bunker, I had the impression I was in a church."
As the days passed on, Borgowiec heard the guards expressing their amazement at Fr. Kolbe; “We’ve never had a priest here like this one,” they said, “He must be a wholly exceptional man.” According to the Penal block chief, the guards could not bear Kolbe’s gaze. “Turn your eyes away. Do not look at us that way!” His serene look traumatized them.
Finally, after two weeks, the SS thought the four survivors were taking too long. Fr. Kolbe was fully conscious but now seated. When a Nazi criminal came in to administer lethal injections of carbolic acid, Fr. Kolbe lifted his arm to him. Borgowiec couldn’t bear this sight and walked out for a few moments. When he came back, he saw Fr. Kolbe’s body was clean and bright, unlike the other begrimed prisoners. Fr. Maximilian had always hoped to die on a feast day of Mary. He left this earth on August 14, 1941, the vigil of the Assumption of Mary.
The following video features a man who knew St. Maximilian.
The Red Crown
In 1982, my mom went to Europe for the only time of her life. She journeyed with a friend to attend the canonization of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe. She recalls the sheer excitement in waiting for Pope St. John Paul to enter St. Peter’s Basilica. “Will he be dressed in red?” she and her friend wondered. If so, the Church recognized Fr. Maximilian as a martyr. The Pope emerged – dressed in a beautiful red chasuble. St. Maximilian won the red crown of martyrdom offered so many years previously by the Blessed Virgin.
A Man for Others, Maximilian Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz, In the Words of Those Who Knew Him, by Patricia Treece, 1982, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.
The Death Camp Proved Him Real, by Maria Winowska, 1971, Prow Books, Franciscan Marytown Books
St. Maximilian explains how the Militia Immaculatae developed in this article.
Questions & Answers
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