Today in Poland, the Franciscan Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to die in place of a stranger in the German concentration camp at Auschwitz. He had been arrested in Poland in February of 1941, and in May sent to what was effectively a death camp. According to some estimates, between 1.1 million to 1.5 million people, the vast majority of them Jews, died at Auschwitz during its years of operation.
An estimated 70,000 to 80,000 Poles perished at the camp, along with 19,000 to 20,000 Romas and smaller numbers of Soviet prisoners of war and other individuals. In January 1945, as the Soviet army entered Krakow, the Germans ordered that Auschwitz be abandoned. Before the end of the month, in what came to be known as the Auschwitz death marches, an estimated 60,000 detainees, accompanied by Nazi guards, departed the camp and were forced to march to the Polish towns some 30 miles away. Countless prisoners died during this process; those who made it to the sites were sent on trains to concentration camps in Germany.
Back in 1941 Kolbe became prisoner #16670 at the age of 47, At the end of July, one prisoner escaped from the camp, prompting Karl Fritzsch, the deputy camp commander, to pick ten men to be starved to death in an underground bunker to deter further escape attempts. When one of the selected men, cried out, "My wife! My children!", Kolbe volunteered to take his place. The ten men were locked into a cell and left to die, according to an eyewitness, who was an assistant janitor at that time, Kolbe led the prisoners in prayer. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After they had been starved and deprived of water for three weeks, only Kolbe and three others remained alive and would be killed with an injection of carbolic acid. There is a eyewitness interview about his last days by Tadeusz Raznikiewicz, from Uppsala, Sweden, which can be heard on the internet on the Saint Cast, episode 139. Fr Kolbe was well known before his death, in Poland and so quite quickly by the late 1940’s the cause his beatification had begun. He was beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1971 and canonized by his fellow Pole, Pope John Paul II in 1982.
Born Raymond Kolbe his life was strongly influenced in 1906, when he was 12, by a vision of the Virgin Mary. He later described this incident: 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. This lead to a lifelong devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary . He joined the Franciscans in Lwow, as the seminary was in Austria-Hungary and it meant illegally crossing the border. He went to study in Rome and gained a doctorate in philosophy followed by a doctorate in theology. By the time he was in his early thirties, Fr. Kolbe founded a religious house near Warsaw, Niepokalanów – the City of the Immaculate, and starting with a handful of friars, within a decade it grew to house nearly 1,000! The friars’ made use of the most modern printing technology, and they started a radio station. They began to publish a daily newspaper called the Small Diary which reached a circulation of 137,000, and nearly double that, 225,000, on weekends.
Next he moved to Japan, where by 1931 he had founded a Franciscan monastery, on the outskirts of Nagasaki. Kolbe had the monastery built on a mountainside. According to Shinto beliefs, this was not the side best suited to be in harmony with nature. However, when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, the monastery survived. In 1938, he returned to Poland to start a radio station at Niepokalanów, but after the outbreak of World War II, Kolbe was one of the few friars who remained in the monastery, where he organized a temporary hospital. The monastery continued to act as a publishing house, issuing a number of anti-Nazi German publications. On 17 February 1941, the monastery was shut down by the German authorities. That day Kolbe and four others were arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned and two months alter he was transferred to Auschwitz as prisoner 16670
Though St. Maximilian’s body was incinerated at Auschwitz, there are first class relics available for veneration. Years before his death, the barber in his community started saving clippings of Fr. Kolbe’s hair and beard. The prisoner who Kolbe saved attended his canonization. Though spared the torture of the starvation bunker, he had still suffered greatly in Auschwitz for over five years and his sons did not live to see the day of his release. The prisoners who had grown so fond of Fr. Kolbe were particularly cruel to him, as they blamed him for the loss of their beloved friend and priest. However in 1982, in St. Peter’s Square, he was a guest of honour as Kolbe was declared a saint. John Paul II declared him to be “the patron saint of our difficult century.” He is now seen as the patron saint of families, prisoners, journalists, political prisoners, drug addicts and the pro-life movement.