Born into a poor family in Russian-occupied Poland in 1894, Kolbe was a naughty and difficult child until the age of 12 when, around the time of his First Holy Communion, he had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary which was to change his life:
I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both.
Kolbe went on to become a Franciscan Brother and was later ordained Priest. He undertook missionary work in Japan and India, founded religious houses and had a lifelong devotion to the Blessed Virgin.
When Poland was occupied by the Nazis in 1939, S. Maximilian’s monastery soon fell foul of the oppressive regime, because of their publications and radio broadcasts and their sheltering of some 3000 Polish refugees, of whom around 2000 were Jewish.
S. Maximilian was arrested and imprisoned in Warsaw, then in 1941 sent to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, where he became Prisoner 16670. There, his fortitude in the face of suffering and his continuing priestly ministry earned him both the admiration of fellow prisoners and the hatred of the guards, who frequently beat and abused him, once almost to the point of death.
In 1941, there was an escape from Auschwitz, and the Camp Authorities decreed that ten prisoners should be chosen for every one who had escaped, and sent to the underground bunker in Block 13, the Death Block. As the doomed men were chosen, one cried out “Oh my poor wife, my poor children! I shall never see them again!” Immediately, S. Maximilian Kolbe stepped out from the ranks of prisoners and offered to take this man’s place. The offer was accepted; the previously condemned man was reprieved, and the Saint was led out with the others to die.
Bruno Borgowiec, a prisoner who worked in Block 13, later recounted the story of Kolbe’s final weeks in these words:
In the cell of the poor wretches there were daily loud prayers, the Rosary and singing, in which prisoners from neighbouring cells also joined. When no SS men were in the Block, I went to the Bunker to talk to the men and comfort them. Fervent prayers and songs to the Holy Mother resounded in all the corridors of the Bunker. I had the impression I was in a church. Fr Kolbe was leading and the prisoners responded in unison. They were often so deep in prayer that they did not even hear that inspecting SS men had descended to the Bunker; and the voices fell silent only at the loud yelling of their visitors. When the cells were opened the poor wretches cried loudly and begged for a piece of bread and for water, which they did not receive, however. If any of the stronger ones approached the door he was immediately kicked in the stomach by the SS men, so that falling backwards on the cement floor he was instantly killed; or he was shot to death … Fr Kolbe bore up bravely, he did not beg and did not complain but raised the spirits of the others. … Since they had grown very weak, prayers were now only whispered. At every inspection, when almost all the others were now lying on the floor, Fr Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the centre as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men. Two weeks passed in this way. Meanwhile one after another they died, until only Fr Kolbe was left. This the authorities felt was too long; the cell was needed for new victims. So one day they brought in the head of the sickquarters, a German, a common criminal named Bock, who gave Fr Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid in the vein of his left arm. Fr Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, himself gave his arm to the executioner. Unable to watch this, I left under the pretext of work to be done. Immediately after the SS men with the executioner had left I returned to the cell, where I found Fr Kolbe leaning in a sitting position against the back wall with his eyes open and his head dropping sideways. His face was calm and radiant.
Maximilian Kolbe died on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, a poignant but fitting date for one who had dedicated his life so completely to Christ and to his Blessed Mother, and accepted from her the Crown of Martyrdom. The man he had saved, Franciszek Gajowniczek, survived Auschwitz and was present, with his large family, children and grandchildren, when Pope John Paul II declared Kolbe a Saint on 10th October 1982.
Pope John Paul, himself a victim of the Nazis in occupied Poland, considered Maximilian Kolbe to be the Patron Saint of the 20th Century, which he called “our difficult century.” Kolbe himself declared that “the most deadly poison of our times is indifference.”
At the start of a new Century, let us struggle and pray that indifference may be overcome, and the great sin of Nazism and Fascism which blighted the last century, and blights our times still, may be defeated.