Offering himself for a stranger

AFTER AN EXHAUSTING DAY of forced labor in July of 1941, the prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp lined up for evening roll call, only to discover that a prisoner was missing. Immediately, guards and dogs began the hunt for the escaped inmate, a man from Block 14. 

The remaining prisoners, already gaunt from living on a mere 300 to 500 calories a day, were forced to stand at attention for three hours while the search continued. But the real torture was wondering which prisoners from the escapee’s cell block would pay—as had been the case with the last two prison breaks—by being sentenced to a slow, agonizing death by starvation. 

That evening the prisoners were sent to their bunks, but the next morning Nazi SS captain Karl Fritsch announced that the escaped prisoner had not been found. While everyone else was marched off to the fields for another day of work, the men of Block 14 were forced once again to stand at attention for hours.

Finally, Fritsch scrutinized each prisoner and, one by one, removed from the ranks 10 condemned men. One, Franciszek Gajowniczek, a Jewish sergeant in the Polish army, sobbed uncontrollably, wailing, “My poor wife! My poor children!”

It was then that prisoner #16670 stepped out of line and walked toward Fritsch—a brave move, given the machine guns aimed at him. When Fritsch demanded what “this Polish pig” wanted, the man removed his hat and quietly said, “I would like to die in place of one of these men.” 

That prisoner was Maximilian Kolbe, a 47-year-old Franciscan priest who convinced the Nazi commander that an old, frail priest would be a better choice than the young, distraught husband and father. Kolbe’s heroic self-sacrifice led him to be venerated as a saint and martyr by Catholics worldwide and to serve as an inspiration to people of all faiths. 

Ultimate sacrifice

A replica of Cell Block 11 where Kolbe died sits in the middle of a small museum at the National Shrine of Maximilian Kolbe in Libertyville, just north of Chicago. The museum also has on display a brick from Auschwitz’s Crematorium 1, barbed wire from the concentration camp, and a relic of Kolbe’s hair.

Inside the bunker three candles flank a painting depicting Christ on the cross and Kolbe’s execution by injection of carbolic acid. Kolbe was sent to the bunker as one of the condemned 10 in place of Gajowniczek. Six men died in the bunker over the next three weeks; at that point the remaining four were killed. Kolbe was said to have offered his arm for the injection willingly. His body was cremated the next day, August 15.

According to another Auschwitz inmate, Bruno Borgowiec, who survived the war and died in 1947, Kolbe before his death provided comfort to the other men and led them in prayer. “Sometimes they would be so absorbed in prayer that they did not even realize the guards had come for the daily inspection and had opened their cell door,” Borgowiec said. Borgowiec, who was assigned to remove dead bodies from the bunkers, described the conditions: “The cell, with the cold and cement floor, had one ceiling-level window and no furniture. Just a pail for natural needs. The stench was overwhelming. . . . To give you an idea of what these prisoners went through, I need only mention that I never needed to empty the bucket in the corner. It was always empty and dry. The prisoners actually drank its contents in order to satisfy their thirst.” 

Kolbe, Borgowiec said, asked for nothing and never complained. “He had the special gift of comforting everybody. When his fellow prisoners, writhing in agony, were begging for a drop of water, and in despair were screaming and cursing, Father Kolbe would calm them down, inspiring them to perseverance.” 

A life of service 

Kolbe’s faith had early roots. Born January 8, 1894, near Lodz in Poland, Raymond Kolbe came from a deeply religious family. His parents were weavers and devout Catholics; his mother had wanted to become a nun when she was a girl. The three boys who survived infancy all entered seminary. 

Young Raymond was mischievous, and he later claimed that after a scolding one day, he asked the Virgin Mary what would become of him. He said in his retelling that Mary offered him two crowns: one, white, representing purity; the other, red, representing martyrdom. He agreed to accept both.

He entered the Franciscan seminary, studied in Rome, and was ordained a priest in 1918, taking the name Maximilian Mary. While in Rome he helped found the Crusade of Mary Immaculate, an evangelistic organization. Although suffering from tuberculosis, Kolbe returned to Poland, where the crusade grew and he began publishing a monthly magazine, Knight of the Immaculate. In 1927 the Franciscans even built Niepokalanow (“City of the Immaculate”) in Teresin (near Warsaw) which housed a friary, seminary, and publishing house. Kolbe eventually traveled with fellow Franciscans to Japan, where he helped found a seminary and magazine in Nagasaki. Their “Garden of the Immaculate” was built on the slopes of Mount Hikosan, which spared it from destruction when the atomic bomb leveled the rest of the city in 1945. 

Kolbe returned home in 1939 just before Germany invaded Poland. In a talk to fellow friars that same year, he described the three stages of his life: the first, preparation for work; the second, work; and the third, suffering. “I would like to die in a knightly manner,” he said, “even to the shedding of the last drop of my blood.” 

He offered shelter at Niepokalanow to 3,000 Polish refugees, the majority of them Jews. Inevitably the community came under suspicion, and Kolbe most likely provoked his own arrest with his writings in the Knight. In February of 1941, he was sent to Pawiak prison in Warsaw; three months later he was transferred to Auschwitz. 

Kolbe’s ultimate sacrifice served as the culmination of his compassion and generosity in the camp. Surviving witnesses attested that he offered spiritual solace to prisoners of many faiths during his months at Auschwitz. Dr. Rudolf Diem, a Protestant physician assigned to the camp hospital, recalled Kolbe waiting in line for hours for medical care but then insisting that others with greater need be seen first. 

When Diem learned Kolbe was a Catholic priest, the doctor asked Kolbe if he still believed in God. “Believe he did, and he tried with all his effort to convince me also,” Diem said later. “I kept insisting that in that climate of moral deprivation and horrendous mass crimes, I found it absolutely impossible to continue believing in the existence of God. And with never the slightest gesture of hatred toward the invaders responsible for so many atrocities, he would assure me that one day I would believe again.” 

Nazi persecution

Kolbe was by no means the only Catholic priest to die in a concentration camp. Nor was he the only Christian persecuted by the Nazis. Although Jews clearly were the primary target of the “Final Solution,” people of other faiths, including Jehovah’s Witnesses (because they refused to take an oath of loyalty to the Nazi Party), Protestant pastors, and Catholic clergy and members of religious orders were killed. 

In addition to the estimated 6,000,000 Jews who perished, approximately 5,000,000 non-Jews—including homosexuals, mentally and physically disabled people, pacifists, Communists, Slavs, and Gypsies—were deemed “undesirable” and killed. Others were arrested and sent to the camps.

The Catholic Church in Poland was especially hard hit. Overall, 3,000 Polish Catholic clergy (18 percent) were murdered between 1939 and 1945; in some areas almost 50 percent of the clergy died. Nuns—and even bishops—met the same fate. Nearly 2,600 priests from 24 nations died at the Dachau concentration camp from starvation or medical experimentation. 

Protestant clergy also were persecuted and killed, especially Poles and those who spoke out against the Nazis. Among the most well known was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and a founder of the Confessing Church movement (which opposed Nazism). The Nazis executed Bonhoeffer in 1945. 

Another German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller, became famous for pointing out the complicity of German silence during the war: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” He spent time in two concentration camps and was one of the first clergy members to apologize after the war for his earlier anti-Semitism.

Kolbe was also accused of anti-Semitism because of early writings that named Freemasons and Jews as enemies of Catholicism. Later Catholics, however, pointed to his sheltering of Jewish refugees, ministry to prisoners of all faiths in the camps, and finally his sacrifice as evidence to the contrary. 

“Our difficult century”

Forty-one years after Kolbe’s death, the first Polish pope, John Paul II, presided over Kolbe’s canonization as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. A quarter of a million people crowded into St. Peter’s Square in Rome on October 10, 1982, for the official ceremony. 

When the idea of sainthood for Kolbe arose, controversy did too—over whether Kolbe was a martyr in the technical sense of the term, since he had not been killed out of odium fidei, or “hatred of the faith.” At Kolbe’s beatification (the first step toward sainthood) in 1971, the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints determined that Kolbe was not a true martyr. Instead Pope Paul VI called him a “martyr of charity,” a term that had no standing in church law. 

John Paul II appointed an advisory commission to study the matter. Although Polish and German bishops wished to see Kolbe recognized as a martyr, a majority of the commission members concluded that his self-sacrifice did not meet the traditional criteria for that title. 

Yet on that October day when the pope processed into the square wearing red vestments, it was clear that the man who had visited Kolbe’s death cell multiple times in the years since Kolbe’s sacrifice had overridden the advice of his own commission. “In virtue of my apostolic authority, I have decreed that Maximilian Mary Kolbe, who following his beatification was venerated as a confessor [of Christ], will henceforth be venerated also as a martyr,” the pope said in his homily. The pope described Kolbe as “patron of our difficult century.” 

Among those attending the ceremony was Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man whose place Kolbe had taken in Auschwitz. After the war, Gajowniczek was reunited with his wife, although his children had died in a bombing. Gajowniczek, who died in 1995 at the age of 94, later recalled that fateful day in 1941: “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.” CH

By Heidi Schlumpf

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #109 in 2014]

Heidi Schlumpf is a journalist and an associate professor of communication at Aurora University
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