St. Maximilian Kolbe’s Martyrdom Tells True Story of Sacrifice

“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

St. Maximilian Kolbe as a prisoner in Auschwitz, 1941.
St. Maximilian Kolbe as a prisoner in Auschwitz, 1941. (photo: Auschwitz Museum / Auschwitz Museum)

Giving one’s life for a friend, the ultimate call of Christian charity, almost seems like an impossible task. But on this particular feast day of St. Maximilian Kolbe, we have a fresh reminder of the kind of bravery, humility, and love for God this type of self-sacrifice takes. 

 — Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) July 29, 201929 July 1941 | After an escape from #Auschwitz of a Polish prisoner Zygmunt Pilawski SS authorities selected 10 prisoners for starvation death. One of them, Franciszek Gajowniczek, begged for mercy. Father Maximilian #Kolbe sacrificed his life asking SS men to take him instead. pic.twitter.com/fpVznLQyJl

On July 29, 1941, after Polish prisoner Zygmunt Pilawski fled Auschwitz, Nazi SS guards grabbed 10 other prisoners to die for the man’s escape. Father Kolbe heard one of the men chosen, Franciszek Gajowniczek, lamenting this fate, mourning the lost life with his wife and children. Moved by the prisoner’s grief, Father Kolbe asked for Gajowniczek’s life to be spared, telling the guards to take him instead. “I am a Catholic priest,” he said. “Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.” Franciscan Father Kolbe pointed to the prisoner and repeated, “I am a Catholic priest from Poland. I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.”

 — Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) July 29, 2019Zygmunt Pilawski, after whose escape from #Auschwitz the selection for starvation took place, was later arrested and once again imprisoned in the camp on 25 June 1942. He was shot on 31 July 1942. pic.twitter.com/gPpE90kpVo

The guard allowed the exchange. Prisoner No. 16770, Father Maximilian Kolbe, lived for another 15 days in a starvation cell located inside Block 11, enduring beatings and torment at the hands of SS guards. Despite this ongoing anguish, survivors of the camp share memories of the starving prisoners praying and singing hymns, led by the one priest who had volunteered to die. Father Kolbe died from a lethal injection of carbolic acid Aug. 14, 1941. He was 47 years old.  

 — Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) July 29, 2019Cell no. 18 in the basement of Block 11. The starvation cell into which on 29 July 1941 ten prisoners were locked to die. Maximilian Kolbe was among them https://t.co/PtOryHF9cM pic.twitter.com/s6ql73XlxQ

Hundreds gathered this morning in Auschwitz at Block 11 to remember St. Maximilian Kolbe at the place where he died 78 years ago today. 

 — Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) August 14, 2019A prayer at the execution wall located in the yard of Block 11 at the former German Nazi Auschwitz I camp.

78 years ago in cell 18 of the basement of Block 11 father Maximilian Kolbe was murdered with an injection of phenol. pic.twitter.com/4V20JQWsFN

Mass was offered and prayers said as the rain fell this morning over Auschwitz where over 1 million prisoners died during World War II, including this brave priest who is now considered a “martyr of charity,” inspiring us all to be more compassionate

 — Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) August 14, 2019The Mass at the former German #Auschwitz camp on the 78th anniv. of death of Fr. Maximilian #Kolbe who sacrificed his life for another prisoner Franciszek Gajowniczek. On 14 August 1941 Kolbe was killed with phenol injection inside the starvation cell in Block 11. pic.twitter.com/Z0cvnRaEJM

Pope St. Paul VI beatified Father Kolbe Oct. 17, 1971. In his homily, Pope Paul VI recalled Kolbe's tragic departure from this world, saying, “Over this immense vestibule of death hovers a divine and imperishable word of life, that of Jesus revealing the secret of innocent suffering: to be the expiation, the victim, the burnt sacrifice and, above all, to be love for others.”

Canonized a saint Oct. 10, 1982, by St. John Paul II, the Pope reminded the faithful of Kolbe's deep love for the Blessed Mary and her Immaculate Heart, saying: “The inspiration of his whole life was the Immaculata. To her he entrusted his love for Christ and his desire for martyrdom. In the mystery of the Immaculate Conception there revealed itself before the eyes of his soul that marvelous and supernatural world of God's grace offered to man.”

Given his devotion to the Blessed Mother, it almost seems poetic or providential that Father Maximilian Kolbe would die on the eve of the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. As his body was cremated on the feast day, we can remember his words from his letters written years before: “I would like to be reduced to ashes for the cause of the Immaculata, and may this dust be carried over the whole world, so that nothing would remain.”

Saint Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us!

This article originally appeared Aug. 14, 2019 at the Register.

José Benlliure Ortiz, “Leaving Mass in Rocafort,” 1915

On Suffering and Hope and Forever

‘In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value. Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his offering.’ (CCC 1368)

José Benlliure Ortiz, “Leaving Mass in Rocafort,” 1915

On Suffering and Hope and Forever

‘In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value. Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his offering.’ (CCC 1368)