Young Readers, Learn About St. Maximilian Kolbe

Years later, when Father Kolbe was canonized by fellow Pole Pope St. John Paul II, in attendance was 84-year-old Gajowniczek, who ultimately survived Auschwitz — living proof that Father Kolbe performed at least one miracle.

‘St. Maximilian Kolbe: A Hero of the Holocaust’ is the latest book by author Fiorella De Maria.
‘St. Maximilian Kolbe: A Hero of the Holocaust’ is the latest book by author Fiorella De Maria. (photo: Ignatius Press)

It was the final heroic act of the Polish priest St. Maximilian Kolbe. It occurred when he was a 47-year-old prisoner in Auschwitz. He and his Franciscan community near Warsaw had been dragged away when the Nazis invaded in 1939. Polish priests were marked men; the idea was that in an intensely Catholic country such as Poland, ridding the country of its pastors would sap the Polish people of their will to resist. Among their crimes was the sheltering of 2,000 Polish Christians and Jews.

In August 1941, Father Kolbe watched as men were selected to die by starvation. It was retribution for a prisoner who had dared to escape. The Nazi guards pointed at former Polish army Sgt. Franciszek Gajowniczek and ordered him to proceed to the place of his death. As the man was being led away, he bemoaned the fate of his poor wife and children.

Father Kolbe asked to take the man’s place; the guards were happy to comply: one less meddlesome priest. After 10 days, he was injected with poison. His body, like so many millions in that terrible place, was shoved into an oven.

Years later, when Father Kolbe was canonized by fellow Pole Pope St. John Paul II, in attendance was 84-year-old Gajowniczek, who ultimately survived Auschwitz — living proof that Father Kolbe performed at least one miracle.

In St. Maximilian Kolbe: A Hero of the Holocaust, author Fiorella De Maria aims the story of Father Kolbe’s magnificent life and martyr’s death to young readers, ages 9 to 14. Ideally, it will be read by the parents, too, so as to create a discussion on what it means to be a Christian.

In De Maria’s telling, Father Kolbe was beyond extraordinary. As he grew older, he never lost his sense of youthful wonder. He was naïve in the best sense of the word. He never saw his dreams as flights of fancy but inspiration from the woman he loved: the Blessed Virgin Mary.

His devotion to Mary was reinforced when, at 12 years of age, he was praying alone in church. While kneeling, he had a vision. It was Mary looking at him with love. She gave him a choice about what his future might hold, in the form of two crowns: one white for purity and one red for martyrdom. He was told to pick one — he chose both.

Long before his death, Father Kolbe wrote:

“We shall ask the Immaculata frequently to enlighten us on what we must undertake and how we have to act. Besides, we shall turn to her to beg for the necessary energy to accomplish for her the most difficult and heroic actions.”

He eventually created a worldwide movement called the Militia of the Immaculata, sometimes known as The Knights of the Immaculata. He produced a publication to spread the love of Mary and the Gospels. It was an early form of mass media decades before the internet. It still exists today in digital form. Before the Second World War, circulation hit an astounding 300,000.

He was deeply loved by his Franciscan brothers, but he annoyed his superiors  with his seemingly hairbrained plans — like when he decided what he needed was a prime piece of real estate near Warsaw to mass produce his publication. His lack of money didn’t deter him. He wanted to call the new community “Niepokalanow,” or City of Mary. 

He met with the owner, a local member of the nobility, who was first incredulous at the idea of donating the land. But Father Kolbe believed that Mary could cause the conversion of hearts. The owner, a devout Catholic, soon realized that giving the land was greater than gaining more earthly riches.

Father Kolbe then set his eyes on Japan. With no money and no familiarity with the Japanese language or culture, he told his superiors that he wanted to bring Christianity to that distant land. He went with another Franciscan. They had no one to greet them and no place to stay. The local bishop called the enterprise “madness.” Not only did the community thrive, it turned into a haven for wounded Japanese and an orphanage after the devastation left on Nagasaki by the atomic bomb attack in 1945.

A few years before, Father Kolbe was recalled to Poland because of his declining health. Years of tuberculosis left him with only one functioning lung. He was at his beloved Niepokalanow when the German invasion finally came in 1939. The world began exploding around him as the invaders dropped bombs without mercy.

“Maximilian looked up and froze at the sight that greeted him,” De Maria writes. “The sky glowed a fierce purple red: the red of war, of suffering … the color of martyrdom. Memories of a red crown came back to haunt Maximilian as he stood still, his eyes raised to the blazing sky above. In the midst of all that angry color, he saw a white cross stretched out before his eyes. Red crown, white crown.” 

His dual paths were coming to fruition.

Charles Lewis writes from Toronto.

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)