A Martyr At Auschwitz

Courts of law give special weight to a man's last words. It is thought that a man, staring eternity in the face, will speak the truth. Catholic piety has given special attention to the “seven last words” of Christ, spoken from the cross, often meditating upon them for the three hours of Good Friday afternoon. Father Maximilian Mary Kolbe is best known for his last recorded words, spoken in the Auschwitz death camp, a place that Pope John Paul II has called the “Golgotha of the modern world.” On the 20th century's Good Friday, Father Kolbe, staring into the heart of evil, said simply: “I am a Catholic priest.” By now we know that he was much more than an ordinary Catholic priest.

Raymond Kolbe was born Jan. 7, 1894, into a poor, devout and patriotic Polish family. As a schoolboy, he was both pious and highly intelligent. Drawn to science, where mathematics and physics opened the world of astronomy to him, he was fascinated by the prospect of space flight. Along with his older brother Francis, Raymond entered the minor seminary of the Conventual Franciscans, taking the habit and the name of Maximilian Mary on Sept. 4, 1910, at age 16.

Maximilian was ordained in 1918, after completing doctorates in philosophy and theology in Rome. He celebrated his first Mass in the Roman church of San Andrea delle Fratte. The church is famous for a 19th-century apparition of our Lady to a Jewish agnostic who immediately converted; the apparition came after a friend had given him a Miraculous Medal to wear. The new priest was impressed by the story and reasoned that, if Mary could use the Miraculous Medal to work such an unusual conversion, then other souls could be reached too.

Father Kolbe, already a man of deep Marian devotion, founded the Knights of the Immaculata to spread devotion to Mary. Members were simply asked to wear the Miraculous Medal, and to pray daily to Mary for protection from the enemies of the Church and for the salvation of souls. The spirituality of the Knights was to bring souls to Christ through Mary, and for that purpose to become instruments in the hands of Mary.

Throughout the 1920s the organization grew, flourishing in Poland after Father Kolbe's return to Krakow. The need to communicate with the growing membership led to a new apostolate: printing. A newsletter, The Knight of the Immaculata, was produced, and Father Kolbe had the foresight to see the potential of new communications technology. He acquired the newest printing presses and, by 1938, Father Kolbe's “City of the Immaculata” community of Franciscan friars had more than 700 members and the newsletter nearly a million readers. During the 1930s Father Kolbe spent several years in Japan, spreading his publishing apostolate there, getting translators to produce Marian materials in the various languages of the Far East.

In 1939, Father Kolbe was recalled to Poland and made superior of the City of the Immaculata community. World War II broke out that same year, and Father Kolbe and his apostolate came under attack. He was arrested by the Gestapo in December 1939 and released. Harassment by the Gestapo continued until February 1941, when Father Kolbe was arrested in Warsaw with four other priests. On May 28, 1941, he was part of a larger group of prisoners sent to Auschwitz, where he was assigned to the especially difficult jobs given to priests. Beatings and cruel treatment were common.

“They will not kill our souls,” Father Kolbe is reported to have said to encourage his fellow prisoners. “They will not be able to deprive us of the dignity of a Catholic. We will not give up. And when we die, we die pure and peaceful, resigned to God in our hearts.”

According to the rules of Auschwitz, if a prisoner escaped, 10 prisoners would be put to death in reprisal. A prisoner escaped in late July 1941, and the camp commandant randomly selected 10 men to die in his place. One of them, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out in concern for his wife and children. Father Kolbe then stepped forward.

“What does this Polish swine want?” demanded the commandant.

“I am a Catholic priest from Poland,” replied Father Kolbe. “I would like to take this man's place, because he has a wife and children.”

The commandant was astounded, but acceded to the request, allowing Father Kolbe to take Gajowniczek's place in the “death bunker” with the other nine men. The underground bunker was nothing more than a small room with a concrete floor where the completely naked prisoners were thrown to die from thirst and starvation. Father Kolbe comforted the other prisoners, leading them in the rosary and hymns to Mary immaculate. After two weeks, the Nazis needed the bunker for other prisoners, and so Father Kolbe and the three other prisoners who were still alive were given lethal injections of carbolic acid. He was killed on Aug. 14, 1941, vigil of the Assumption. Father Kolbe's body was burned in the camp crematorium.

In canonizing Father Kolbe on Oct. 10, 1982, Pope John Paul called him a “patron of our difficult century.”

Had Father Kolbe never entered Auschwitz, his name would still be known for the holiness of his life and the zeal of his apostolate. His work in the Catholic press was truly innovative, establishing him as a pioneer in the use of modern communications for the evangelization. He was a forerunner of the new evangelization, devoting himself both to increasing the zeal of those already baptized, and to seeking to preach the Gospel to those who had never heard it in Japan. Yet his mission was to confront evil in a more direct way, with the witness not of his words, but of his blood.

“Modern times are dominated by Satan and will be more so in the future,” wrote the future saint and martyr in the 1920s. “The conflict with hell cannot be engaged by men, even the most clever. The Immaculata alone has from God the promise of victory over Satan.”

In the darkest hour of the 20th century, Mary immaculate was already winning her victory through her son Maximilian even as she was present on Golgotha when her Son was the first priest to offer his own body as the sacrificial victim.