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Auschwitz Prisoner #16670 - Maximillian Kolbe

Updated on June 19, 2013

In times of unspeakable tragedy, whether it be natural or man-made, heroes emerge. Maximillian Kolbe stands out as one of these selfless heroes by giving up his life to save that of a stranger.

Raymond Kolbe was born on January 8, 1894 in Poland, the son of shopkeepers. At the age of 13, he and his older brother joined the Conventual Franciscans, and at age 16 he entered seminary and was given the name Maximillian. He took his final vows and became a priest in 1918, when he was 24 years old.

In 1919, he returned to the newly independent Poland. He was a skilled writer and an accomplished printer, publishing a daily newspaper with a circulation of 230,000, and a monthly magazine with a million readers. He also had a radio program, all of which were dedicated to spreading the Catholic faith and speaking out against Nazi atrocities.

When Nazi Germany invaded his country, Fr. Kolbe hid over two thousand Jews in his friary. He was arrested in February of 1941 by the Gestapo, and in May was transferred to Auschwitz.

In July of that same year, three prisoners escaped and were never recovered. As a punishment and to deter future attempts, 10 prisoners were chosen at random to be starved to death in an underground cell. One of the unfortunate chosen, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, "My wife! My children!". Maximillian immediately volunteered to take his place. The camp commander shrugged his shoulders – it did not matter to him who was left to die. As starvation and dehydration is a cruel, painful way to die, often the prisoners would wail and curse as the hunger became unbearable. This time, however, Fr. Kolbe led the men in song and prayer, encouraging them to bravely accept their death and receive eternal life in heaven. After two weeks, only Maximillian was still alive, calmly praying. He was then injected with carbolic acid to hasten his death.

He was canonized a saint on October 10, 1982 by Pope John Paul II with Franciszek Gajowniczek in the audience.

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