Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest.
World War II came with the invasion of Poland by Germany. Kolbe was one of the few who remained in the monastery, where he set up a temporary hospital. Subsequently it became a secret shelter for 3,000 refugees, among whom were 2,000 Jews.
The monastery came under suspicion by the Nazis. It was eventually shut down. Kolbe was arrested and taken to Auschwitz prison camp.
In Auschwitz camp, Kolbe was subjected to violent harassment and inhumane beating. But instead of crying out, he prayed for his tormentors.
Once an SS officer took some heavy planks, laid them on his back and ordered him to run. When he collapsed, he was kicked, given fifty lashes and left to die in the mud. But his friendly prison mates smuggled him to the camp hospital where he recovered.
Despite such hash treatment, Kolbe never abandon his calling as a priest. He would move from bunk to bunk, saying “I am a Catholic priest, Can I do anything for you?” Prisoners would come to him to make confessions and ask for consolation. Kolbe would always plead with them to forgive their persecutors and to overcome evil with good.
Kolbe constantly sacrificed himself for others. He shared his meagre ration of food. At the infirmary, he would wait until all others had been treated before asking help for himself.
The doctor, Rudolph Diem recalled, “I can say with certainty that during my four years in Auschwitz, I never saw such sublime example of the love of God and one’s neighbour.”
In Auschwitz there was a rule that if one prisoner escaped, ten will be chosen to die by starvation in an underground bunker.
On July 1941, a prisoner disappeared mysteriously from the camp. It infuriated the commandant. He then picked 10 men to be locked in the bunker without food and water until they die. The ten selected included a Franciszek Gajowniczek. He cried out in dismay, “My poor wife! My poor children! What will they do?”
When Kolbe heard the anguish cry of Franciszek, he stepped forward and said to the commandant, “I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.”
The commandant was stunned saying, “What does this Polish pig want?” Kolbe pointed to Franciszek and repeated, “I am a Catholic priest from Poland. I would like to take his place because he has a wife and children.”
The prisoners watched in horror and thought the commandant would fly into rage and order the death of both men. Amazingly he acceded to the request. Franciszek was returned to the ranks and Kolbe took his place.
The ten condemned men went through terrible days. Kolbe led the prisoners in prayer. Thirst drove them to drink their urine. They grew weaker by the day. The loud echo of their prayers was eventually reduced to a whimper. As others were lying on the floor, Kolbe was seen kneeling in prayer or standing in the centre as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS guards. One of them remarked, “This priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him.”
Soon one after another died until Kolbe was left. The SS authorities felt it was taking too long. So they brought in a German named Bock to give Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid.
Kolbe is said to have raised his left arm to the executioner with a prayer on his lips. His face was calm and radiant as he entered the glorious presence of God on 14 August 1941.
The news of Kolbe’s death reverberated throughout Auschwitz, Poland and the world.
Kolbe shows us the best of what man can be in the face of what men can do. He shows us love can still thrive in the desert of hatred. He shows us the light of sacrifice shine the brightest in the darkness of brutality.
No wonder Pope John Paul II declared him, “The Patron Saint Of Our Difficult Century.” Maximilian Kolbe was canonized as a Saint on 10 October 1982.
The man whom Kolbe saved could never forget the priest who died in his place. Every year for 5 decades Franciszek would return to Auschwitz on 14 August to honour the man who died that he might live.
Like him, every year we return to Calvary to remember the One who died that we might live.
We were once condemned to eternal death. But Christ took our place on the cross. And now we are made “saints in Christ.”
Let us live like “saints in Christ,” particularly in this difficult century engulfed with hatred, violence, discrimination, racism, radicalism and extremism.
Are you a saint? Do you live like one?