Monday, August 12, 2013

Who is Maximilian Kolbe?

In 1941 a prisoner at Auschwitz, Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest, took the place of one man condemned to death. In July, 1941 a prisoner from one of the barracks at Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi prison camp, had disappeared. To discourage further escape attempts, the deputy camp commander picked ten men to die by starvation. Franciszek Gajowniczek, a Jewish man, was one of the men chosen. On knowing his fate he cried out in agony, "My wife! My children! I will never see them again." Nearby, Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward, "I am a Catholic Priest from Poland. I would like to take his place because he has a wife and children."
The Nazi camp commander could have refused or could have taken both to Block 13 for starvation but for some reason he agreed and Kolbe was thrown into the cell with the nine others whereas Gajowniczek remained in the barracks. Perhaps the commander considered Gajowniczek as more use alive as he was younger than Kolbe and would be able to work longer. Ironically, the missing prisoner, that had started the incident, was found dead in one of the latrines.
After three weeks of dehydration and starvation, only four of the men in Block 13 remained; one of them was Kolbe. Since the cell was needed for others, the guards gave each of the men an injection of carbolic acid.

Who Was Maximilian Kolbe?
Born Raymond Kolbe in 1894 in Zdunska Wola, Poland (then part of Russia) his parents were poor weavers. Kolbe had four brothers. In 1907, Kolbe and his elder brother illegally crossed the border into Austria-Hungary to join the Order of Conventual Franciscans. He took the name "Maximilian" at his first vows in 1911 and in 1912, he was sent to Rome where he studied philosophy, theology, mathematics and physics. He earned his doctorate in philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University and was ordained in 1918.

Before Auschwitz
During his time in Rome, Kolbe witnessed demonstrations against the Pope and decided to establish the Militia of the Immaculata (Army of Mary) to pray and work towards conversion of enemies of the Catholic Church. The organization published pamphlets, a monthly magazine (circulation of over one million) and a daily newspaper.
Kolbe also went to Japan where he founded a monastery near Nagasaki. He had been advised to build the monastery on one side of the mountain but instead built it on the opposite side. When the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, the monastery was not destroyed but would have been if it had been built on the other side.
He returned to Poland because of tuberculosis and there Kolbe provided shelter to a number of refugees, including 2,000 Jews. For this reason and because of the anti-Nazi literature he published, he was arrested on February 17, 1941 by the Gestapo.

Imprisonment at Auschwitz
Kolbe was transferred to Auschwitz on May 25, 1941. In the prison camp he heard confessions and acted as a spiritual guide to all those who came to him. He offered to die for Gajowniczek in July of that year. After the war, Franciszek Gajowniczek returned home to find his wife alive but his two sons dead. He died in 1995 at the age of 95.

Maximilian Kolbe was beatified in 1971 and canonized on October 10, 1982 by Pope John Paul II. The Jewish man he saved from death, Franciszek Gajowniczek was among those in the audience.

Hallam, Elizabeth, (Editor) Saints. New York: Simon and Schuster 1994.
Marytown, National Shrine of Saint Maximilian Kolbe website, Accessed August 23, 2010
Jewish Virtual Library Website. Accessed August 15, 2010.
Auschwitz - Denmark website. Accessed August 15, 2010.
photo Seibo no Kishi、Extra Issue of Jan. 1983

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