St. Maximilian Kolbe is one of my heroes… so every year I “bump” this post in his honor.
If you’ve ever studied World War II, you’ve probably heard of Auschwitz. Auschwitz was initially a concentration camp that later became the largest of the Nazi death camps, where almost 1.1 million people -mostly Jewish- died.
One of these 1.1 million was a Franciscan priest named Maximilian Kolbe (prisoner #16670.) His story is an incredible one of loving God and neighbor, and is one I often like to share.
Maximilian Kolbe was born on January 8, 1894 in Poland. At the age of twelve, he had a life changing vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding two crowns (one white and one red.) She asked young Kolbe if he’d be willing to accept these crowns: white, for the pursuit of purity, and red for martyrdom. He accepted, and a year later (1907) would be accepted to a minor seminary with the Franciscans, with whom he would take final vows in 1914. In 1918, he was ordained a priest. A teacher and missionary, Fr. Kolbe served notably in Japan and India before being forced to return to Poland due to ill health in 1936. After the breakout of World War II, he was arrested twice by the Nazis who ultimately sent him to Auschwitz. As a prisoner there, he continued to serve as a missionary, caring for the other prisoners, sharing his rations, and offering to be beaten in their place.
On July 31, 1941, a prisoner disappeared from the camp, and was believed to have escaped. The Nazis had several punishments for this – meant to deter others from trying to escape. In this case the commandant lined up the prisoners and selected 10 who would be sent to the starvation bunker to die. One of these ten was a young father who begged for his life – wishing to return and be with his family once the war was over. Fr. Kolbe stepped forward and offered to go in his place. The commandant accepted this over and sent Fr. Kolbe and the other nine to the starvation bunker to die.
It is said that over the next two weeks, the other prisoners heard singing coming from the starvation bunker. As one by one these men died, Maximilian Kolbe was the last survivor. On August 14, 1941, after two weeks of starvation, thirst, and neglect, Fr. Kolbe died- some stories report that the Nazis had to give him a lethal injection to finish him off.
On October 10th, 1982, Pope John Paul II – himself a Polish seminarian at the time of the Nazi occupation – canonized Maximilian Kolbe as a martyr of charity. Franciszek Gajowniczek, the young man who’s life he had saved was in Rome for this celebration. Maximilian Kolbe is the patron saint of drug addicts, political prisoners, families, journalists, prisoners and the pro-life movement; and we celebrate his feast day on August 14th (today.)
St. Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us.