Feast Day: August 14th | Patronage: Families, Prisoners, Amateur Radio Operators, Journalists, Political Prisoners, Pro Life Movement, Recovery from Drug Addiction | Iconography: Gray Beard, Franciscan Habit and Cord, Nazi Concentration Camp Uniform, Holding Crucifix, Rosary or Image of Our Lady, White Crown for Purity, Red Crown for Martyrdom, Palm of Martyrdom, Newsletter of Militia Immacolata.
Last week we reached the critical moment of Fr. Kolbe’s life. 10 prisoners are destined to die. He is not one of them. Yet this was the man who, as a child, had a mystical encounter with Our Lady, who offered him either the crown of purity or the crown of martyrdom, to which he asked for both. He had been assigned to the worst work-details and had barely survived a second bout of tuberculosis in the Invalid’s Block a week before, usually a death sentence. Routinely inviting others into prayer and offering confession to his fellow prisoners, he had suffered patiently a double-dose of the guards hatred.
Francis Gajowniczek sobs “My wife and my children”, now assigned to starvation and death. But then there is a disturbance in the ranks. A prisoner pushes forward from the back. Rifles are raised. The dogs strain against their leashes. Capos shout for him to stop. Fritsch reaches for his weapon. Fr. Kolbe steps out of line, his face firm, serene. “I want to talk to the commander.” Marvelously he is not shot as he continues forward. He looks Fritzsch straight in the eye, “Herr Kommandant, I wish to make a request, please.” Fritzsch is further stupefied as Kolbe continues “I want to die in place of this prisoner. … I have no wife or children. Besides, I’m old and not good for anything.” “Who are you?” Asks the incredulous German. “A Catholic Priest” replies Prisoner #16770. Silence blankets the parade ground.
Gajowniczek marvels that he is allowed back in line and can only thank Maximilian Kolbe with his eyes, “I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me – a stranger.” Br. Ladislaus saw the ten victims marched away. “I saw that Father Kolbe was staggering under the weight of one of the others as he upheld this man who could not walk with his own strength.” Wotjkowski, barely surviving the day himself, is rooted to the spot, “I’ve just seen a saint made.” Mleczko, though unable to witness Fr. Kolbe’s final days directly, recalls that the other prisoners kept a prayer vigil for their ten condemned brothers, walking past the slit through which little could be seen of their undergrown starvation bunker. Others heard the guards coming and going from the cell, checking who had perished, screaming at Kolbe to not watch them with his piercing gaze, troubled by his patience and prayerfulness as death approached. He survived for two weeks and was finally murdered by an injection of carbolic acid. Starvation and dehydration were taking too long and the cell was needed for others. And thus, on the evening of August 14th, as the Catholic Church began its celebration of Our Lady’s Assumption into Heaven, another saint entered the panoply of those who lived lives with a love like Christ’s.
Gajowniczek would survive the war and return to his wife and two sons. He was present at Fr. Kolbe’s beatification and canonization, and his memory of St. Maximilian Kolbe is a fitting final word, and a reminder to all of us of the simple choices that led this simple priest to an extraordinary final choice: “I observed him [at] evening in the Block praying fervently and inviting others to join him – a very dangerous activity. I participated in prayer sessions he organized, and once was among his listeners at a conference he gave right outside the Block. Another day a bunch of us were shoveling manure out of a pit. Father Kolbe was beaten very cruelly by an SS guard who hit him many times in the face while his attack dog also assaulted Father, biting him seriously. Father Kolbe bore all this not just with patience but with dignity. … I recall that when he was put down for a better work squad – that of washing potatoes in the kitchen – he expressed his happiness openly to us and his gratitude toward God and the intercession of the Virgin Mary.”
– Fr. Dominic has loved St. Maximilian Kolbe ever since reading a child’s biography of the saint on multiple family car-rides. The dramatic eyewitnesses that tell his final hours to us this week (and next) are collected in Patricia Treece’s captivating biography, A Man for Others: Maximilian Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz, in the Words of Those Who Knew Him.