Back to articles

St Maximilian Kolbe, priest and martyr

2015-08-13 14:03

tl_files/rpbooks/images/newsletter/Fr. Maximilian Kolbe.jpg

Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan friar, starved almost to the point of death, was finally killed in Auschwitz by an injection of carbolic acid on 14 August 1941.

The only saint to have an amateur radio licence, Kolbe's fame has nothing to do with his prodigious work in publishing and radio. The city of Terezin, in what is now the Czech Republic, was where, in 1927, Kolbe established a friary and religious publishing house.

Years later, Terezin (Theresienstadt), under Nazi occupation, became a ghetto and concentration camp where thousands of people – mainly Jews – were transported and killed. Wherever possible, Maximilian Kolbe and his Franciscan Conventual community quietly hid as many Jews as they could from the Gestapo. Their rescue work could not go unnoticed. In 1941, the SS, forcibly closing the friary and the press, arrested Kolbe and transported him to Auschwitz.

As a prisoner, Kolbe refused to stop acting as a priest, even if his care of others attracted attention and made him an obvious target for beatings and other forms of ill-treatment.

Matters came to a head in July 1941 when three prisoners successfully escaped from the camp. Retribution was immediate. Rudolf Höss, the Nazi commandant at Auschwitz and his deputy, Karl Fritzsch, had previously decided that, in the event of an escape from Auschwitz, a group of prisoners should be starved to death as a deterrent to others.

Fritzsch was already infamous in Auschwitz, firstly because he was the first to experiment with the gas Zyklon B as a means of mass killing. Secondly, he enjoyed watching the psychological torture of his prisoners.

In July 1941, because of the three escapees, he selected ten men to be starved to death.

Kolbe was not one of the ten chosen to die. However, as they were being led away to the notorious bunker in which they were to be locked and starved, one man, Franciszek Gajowniczek, a Polish Army sergeant, shouted out that he had a wife and family who depended on his survival. Hearing this, Kolbe stepped forward. "I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children." With those words, he sealed his fate.

Two weeks later, when guards broke open the cell door, Kolbe was the only one still alive – but not for long. Apparently “the martyr of charity” calmly lifted his arm and waited for the inevitable injection of carbolic acid which finished him off.

Kolbe once described the truly free person: “The silver threads of God’s mystery will begin to sparkle visibly in everything around him and there will be a song in his heart. His burdens will turn to blessings because he recognizes them as coming from God and welcomes them as such… Let us trust in life because we do not have to live through it alone. God is with us.”

St Maximilian Kolbe was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1982. His feast day is August 14th.

For more information on St Maximilian Kolbe why not try St Maximilian Kolbe: Martyr of Charity

Back to articles

Go back