Today marks the 80th anniversary of the murder in Auschwitz of one of the greatest saints and martyrs of the 20th century, the Polish Saint Maximilian Kolbe.
His childhood and the vision of the Virgin that changed his life
It would take many posts like these to tell the life and work of Kolbe. I will just make a brief summary. This man was born on January 8, 1894 in Zduńska Wola, in the part of Poland occupied by the Russian Empire, being baptized as Rajmund. His family was very modest and Catholic. His parents, Juliusz Kolbe and Marianna Dąbrowska, were members of the Third Order of Saint Francis. Even as a child he was intelligent and obedient, and his mother also described him as a bit of a rascal, although very devoted.
When he was 12 years old, after committing a mischief, his mother told him: “my boy, who knows what will become of you!” Rajmund, very concerned upon hearing these words, went to pray to the Virgin of Częstochowa. After a while his mother found him with tears in her eyes and asked him what was wrong with him. The boy told her that he went to ask the Virgin what would become of him, and that Our Lady appeared to him and offered him two crowns: one white and one red (the colors of the Flag of Poland), and looking at him with affection asked him if he wanted them, warning him that the white one meant that he would remain pure, and the red one that he would be a martyr. The child accepted and the Virgin, after looking at him with pleasure, disappeared. That vision would be the one that would mark the course of his life from then on.
His consecrated life and the founding of the City of the Immaculate
A year after having that vision, in 1907, and with the permission of his parents, Rajmund chose the path of consecrated life, beginning his studies at the Franciscan seminary in Lviv. In 1910 he joined the Franciscan Order, taking the name Maximilian, making his final vows on November 1, 1914. Two years later he received a doctorate in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and in 1919 he received a doctorate in Theology. In addition to his religious vocation, Maximilian was also passionate about mathematics and inventions: in 1915 he even drew up a sketch of a vehicle to travel into space. Finally, on April 28, 1918 he was ordained a priest, returned to Poland – which had just regained its independence – in 1919.
Even before his ordination, Maximilian manifested a great missionary vocation. In 1917, in Rome, he was one of the founders of the Militia of the Immaculate, which proposed the conversion of sinners and enemies of the Church. Likewise, he manifested another vocation throughout his life: journalism. In January 1922 he founded a newspaper in Krakow called Rycerz Niepokalanej (Knight of the Immaculate), which in October of that year moved to Grodno. In 1927 the newspaper was again transferred to Niepokalanów, the City of the Immaculate, where Maximilian had founded a Franciscan convent that became an important focus of evangelization in Poland.
His missionary work in the Japanese city of Nagasaki
In the following years, the missionary activity took Maximialiano to Nagasaki, in Japan, where he founded a Franciscan monastery (which managed to survive the atomic bomb of 1945, by being protected by the side of a mountain), publishing there the Japanese edition of the newspaper “Knight of the Immaculate”, with a circulation of 60,000 copies. After returning to Poland, he started a radio station (Radio Niepokalanów) and began to project a television station, a film studio and even an airport in Niepokalanów. When the Second World War began in September 1939, Niepokalanów was already the largest Catholic monastery in the world, with 700 monks and novices, which gives an idea of the intense work of Maximilian.
He hid 3,000 persecuted Poles, many of them Jews
With the German invasion of Poland, the time came when Maximilian had to try the red crown that the Virgin had announced to him. The Nazis closed down the Niepokalanów monastery and on September 19, 1939, Maximilian was arrested along with several dozen Catholic religious and clergy. They were released on December 8, the day of the Immaculate Conception, Patroness of Poland. Maximilian continued his evangelizing work but also joined the work of the Polish resistance: in Niepokalanów he hid some 3,000 Poles persecuted by the Nazis, including 1,500 Jews (some sources speak of 2,000). Both of them celebrated the Christmas holidays together in the City of the Immaculate, showing Maximilian and the Franciscans a loving treatment towards the Jews that moved many of them.
The resistance work and the statement for which he was arrested
Maximilian never hesitated when it came to welcoming the persecuted: “We must do everything in our power to help these unfortunate people who have been expelled from their homes and deprived of even the most basic needs. Our mission is among them in the days to come,” he said. In the Niepokalanów monastery they shared shelter, food and clothing with them, at a time when hiding Jews was punished by the Germans with the death penalty in the German-occupied Poland. But the resistance work of these Polish Franciscans was not limited to that. From Niepokalanów, Maximilian made radio broadcasts, identifying himself as SP3RN, in which he criticized nazi abuses. At the beginning of 1941 he was allowed to publish a last issue of the newspaper “Knight of the Immaculate”, and Maximilian used it to publish a few words that he knew would lead to his arrest:
“What we can and must do is seek the truth and serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is an internal conflict. Beyond the occupying armies and the slaughter of the death camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies at the bottom of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And of what use are victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in the depths of our personal being?”
His time in Pawiak prison and his deportation from Auschwitz
On February 17, 1941, Maximilian was arrested by the Gestapo, the fearsome political police of the Third Reich. He was sent to Pawiak Prison, in Warsaw, where he was tortured. According to a witness, in March 1941, an SS guard saw him with his habit girded by a rosary and asked him: “Do you believe in Christ?” Maximilian said yes, and the Nazi guard beat him, and continued to beat him mercilessly after repeating the question several times and receiving the same answer.
On May 28, 1941 Maximilian and 300 other prisoners were deported to Auschwitz. There Maximilian received striped pajamas with an inverted red triangle and the letter P identifying him as a Polish political prisoner, the emblem worn by many Polish Catholics sent to Nazi concentration camps. He was assigned the number 16670.
In that field, Maximilian was forced to carry stone blocks and cut and carry tree trunks, forced labor that lasted all day, without breaks, and was accompanied by beatings by the guards. Kolbe endured all this abuse with a calm that caused the guards to treat him with even more hatred and viciousness. At that moment he wrote some words addressed to his mother: “Do not worry about me or my health, because the good Lord is everywhere and sustains each one of us in his great love.”
Bringing God’s love to a place dominated by Nazi hatred
One day, after falling while carrying heavy boards, a guardian who had a special hatred for him as a priest kicked him in the stomach and another in the face. Other guards joined the beating, giving him fifty lashes. Maximilian was left unconscious and his guardians left him for dead, but other prisoners managed to save his life. Despite his appalling condition, Maximilian continued to do his missionary work, hearing confessions and speaking to other prisoners about God’s love in a place that was dominated by nazi hatred.
Often, when food was brought in and the hungry prisoners fought each other to get some, Maximilian stepped aside, not caring for himself, even if that meant often being left with nothing to eat. Other times he shared what little food he got with other prisoners. One day someone asked him what was the point of his attitude, and he said: “Every man has a goal in life. For most men, it is returning home to their wives and families, or to their mothers. For my part, I give my life for the good of all men.” His character made him a spiritual leader for many prisoners in a place where there seemed to be no room for hope.
He offered to take the place of a prisoner sentenced to death
On July 29, 1941, the camp’s public address system announced that a leak had occurred. In retaliation for the three escapees, ten prisoners would be chosen to be locked up in the so-called Bunker, an underground cell whose prisoners were condemned to starve. One of those chosen was Franciszek Gajowniczek (prisoner number 5659), a sergeant in the Polish Army who was married and the father of two children. Hearing his name, Franciszek lamented for his wife and his children. Maximilian heard these words and offered to take his place. The camp chief accepted the change.
The miracle of Saint Maximilian Kolbe inside the Bunker
Maximilian and the other nine prisoners were stripped naked and taken to the Bunker. At first, some of the locked up prisoners, full of anger, blasphemed against God. Maximilian encouraged them, listened to their confessions and gave them spiritual help. In the end, the locked prisoners began to pray and sing songs dedicated to the Virgin. Prisoners from other neighboring cells ended up joining in the prayers and songs. Sometimes when the SS guards opened the Bunker door to inspect it, the prisoners begged for food and water. The only one who didn’t beg was Kolbe. Little by little the prisoners were dying, spiritually aided by Maximilian. After two weeks, when the SS sentries opened the Bunker, they saw that only Kolbe was still alive. They took him out of there and murdered him with an injection of carbolic acid on August 14, 1941. According to a witness, at the time of his death Maximilian showed a calm and radiant face despite having been two weeks without eating.
His beatification and canonization
The martyrdom of Maximilian Kolbe spread throughout the Auschwitz death camp, becoming a manifestation of love and hope for many prisoners. On August 12, 1947, his beatification process began. He was declared blessed on October 17, 1971. 150,000 people attended his beatification in Rome, including 6,000 Poles, among whom was Karol Wojtyła, who would later be elected Pope like John Paul II. Under his pontificate, Maximilian Kolbe was canonized on October 10, 1982. His canonization was attended by Franciszek Gajowniczek, the prisoner whom he had saved. Today, the cell in which Saint Maximilian Kolbe died at Auschwitz is a pilgrimage site. In addition to dedicating streets and monuments to him in Poland and other countries, seven films have already been shot about this great saint, who has been declared the patron of journalists and radio amateurs.
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