Thursday, August 14, 2014

"I am a Catholic priest": The sacrifice of Maximilian Kolbe

The entrance gate at Auschwitz. The sign above the gate translates "work makes you free."

The date was August 1, 1941 at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-controlled Poland.

During the night before, there had been a successful prison escape from cellblock 14 in Auschwitz. In response, the camp guards lined up the remaining inmates of cellblock 14. As a reprisal for the escape of three prisoners, it was announced that ten of the remaining prisoners from that cellblock would be chosen at random and condemned to death by starvation. 

Randomly, the guards selected ten men called them to step out from the group. One by one, as their names are called, the men stepped forward. But one of the men chosen by the guards to be starved, a man named Franciszek Gajowniczek, began to weep uncontrollably when his name was called. He wailed and pleaded for his life for the sake of his wife and children.

Father Maximilian Kolbe, OFM
At that moment, Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward. A fellow prisoner in cellblock 14 who had been arrested for his efforts to protect Jews and for preaching against Nazism, Father Kolbe calmly proclaimed: “I wish to die for that man. I am old; he has a wife and children.” When asked his name, Father Kolbe replied simply, “I am a Catholic priest.”

Father Kolbe's wish was granted and he was allowed to be one of the ten prisoners to be starved. Francieszek's life was spared. Kolbe survived for nearly two weeks in the starvation bunker before being killed by an injection of carbolic acid. 

Just over forty years later, on October 10, 1982, in a ceremony at St. Peter's Basilica, Pope John Paul II canonized Maximilian Kolbe as a "martyr of charity." And present in the crowd, weeping once again, was Franciszek Gajowniczek who, thanks to Maximilian's act of selfless love, survived his time in Auschwitz and was reunited with his wife. Gajowniczek lived until the age of 93.

Today is the feast day of St. Maximilian Kolbe, priest and martyr. "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:13)

Cell block 11 in Auschwitz - the "starvation bunker" where St. Maximilian died in 1941.