Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest who died as prisoner 16770 in Auschwitz, on August 14, 1941. When a prisoner escaped from the camp, the Nazis selected 10 others to be killed by starvation in reprisal for the escape. One of the 10 selected to die, Franciszek Gajowniczek, began to cry: My wife! My children! I will never see them again! At this Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and asked to die in his place. His request was granted…
The heroism of Father Kolbe went echoing through Auschwitz. In that desert of hatred he had sown love. A survivor Jozef Stemler later recalled: ‘In the midst of a brutalization of thought, feeling and words such as had never before been known, man indeed became a ravening wolf in his relations with other men. And into this state of affairs came the heroic self-sacrifice of Father Kolbe.’ Another survivor Jerzy Bielecki declared that Father Kolbe’s death was ‘a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength … It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp.’
The cell where Father Kolbe died is now a shrine. Maximilian Kolbe was beatified as Confessor by Paul VI in 1970, and canonized as Martyr by Pope John Paul II in 1981.
But what happened to Gajowniczek – the man Father Kolbe saved?
He died on March 13, 1995, at Brzeg in Poland, 95 years old – and 53 years after Kolbe had saved him. But he was never to forget the ragged monk. After his release from Auschwitz, Gajowniczek made his way back to his hometown, with the dream of seeing his family again. He found his wife but his two sons had been killed during the war.
Every year on August 14 he went back to Auschwitz. He spent the next five decades paying homage to Father Kolbe, honoring the man who died on his behalf.
Father Kolbe’s incredible deed is an inspiration for all mankind. His life serves as eulogy to the millions who perished in World War II. He did not leave his legacy as an ode to the past – rather as a beacon of hope to the future.