Later Raymond explained this change "That night 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."
In 1910 he became a Franciscan, taking the name Maximilian.
He studied at Rome and was ordained in 1919. He returned to
Poland and taught Church history in a seminary. He built a
friary just west of Warsaw, which eventually housed 762
Franciscans and printed eleven periodicals, one with a
circulation of over a million, including a daily newspaper.
In 1930 he went to Asia, where he founded friaries in
Nagasaki and in India. In 1936 he was recalled to supervise
the original friary near Warsaw. When Germany invaded Poland
in 1939, he knew that the friary would be seized, and sent
most of the friars home. He was imprisoned briefly and then
released, and returned to the friary, where he and the other
friars began to organize a shelter for 3,000 Polish
refugees, among whom were 2,000 Jews. The friars shared
everything they had with the refugees. They housed, fed and
clothed them, and brought all their machinery into use in
Inevitably, the community came under suspicion and was
watched closely. Then in May 1941 the friary was closed down
and Maximilian and four companions were taken to the death
camp Auschwitz, where they worked with the other prisoners.
On June 15, 1941, he managed to write a letter to his
"Dear Mama, At the end of the month of May I
was transferred to the camp of Auschwitz. Everything is
well in my regard. Be tranquil about me and about my
health, because the good God is everywhere and provides
for everything with love. It would be well that you do not
write to me until you will have received other news from
me, because I do not know how long I will stay here.
Cordial greetings and kisses, affectionately.
One day an SS officer found some of the heaviest planks
he could lay hold of and personally loaded them on the
Franciscan's back, ordering him to run. When he collapsed,
the SS officer kicked him in the stomach and face and had
his men give him fifty lashes. When the priest lost
consciousness the Nazis threw him in the mud and left him
for dead. But his companions managed to smuggle him to the
camp infirmary - and he recovered. The doctor, Rudolph Diem,
later recalled "'I can say with certainty that
during my four years in Auschwitz, I never saw such a
sublime example of the love of God and one's neighbor."
Prisoners at Auschwitz were slowly and systematically
starved, and their pitiful rations were barely enough to
sustain a child: one cup of imitation coffee in the morning,
and weak soup and half a loaf of bread after work. When food
was brought, everyone struggled to get his place and be sure
of a portion. Father Maximilian Kolbe however, stood aside
in spite of the ravages of starvation, and frequently there
would be none left for him. At other times he shared his
meager ration of soup or bread with others.
In the harshness of the slaughterhouse Father Kolbe
maintained the gentleness of Christ. At night he seldom
would lie down to rest. He moved from bunk to bunk, saying:
"I am a Catholic priest. Can I do anything for you?"
A prisoner later recalled how he and several others often
crawled across the floor at night to be near the bed of
Father Kolbe, to make their confessions and ask for
consolation. Father Kolbe pleaded with his fellow prisoners
to forgive their persecutors and to overcome evil with good.
When he was beaten by the guards, he never cried out.
Instead, he prayed for his tormentors.
A Protestant doctor who treated the patients in Block 12
later recalled how Father Kolbe waited until all the others
had been treated before asking for help. He constantly
sacrificed himself for the others.
In order to discourage escapes, Auschwitz had a rule that
if a man escaped, ten men would be killed in retaliation. In
July 1941, a man from Kolbe's bunker escaped. The dreadful
irony of the story is that the escaped prisoner was later
found drowned in a camp latrine, so the terrible reprisals
had been exercised without cause. But the remaining men of
the bunker were led out.
"The fugitive has not been found", the
commandant Karl Fritsch screamed. "You will all pay
for this. Ten of you will be locked in the starvation bunker
without food or water until they die." The
prisoners trembled in terror. A few days in this bunker
without food and water, and a man's intestines dried up and
his brain turned to fire.
The ten were selected, including Franciszek Gajowniczek,
imprisoned for helping the Polish Resistance. He couldn't
help a cry of anguish. "My poor wife" he
sobbed. "My poor children - what will they do?"
When he uttered this cry of dismay, Maximilian stepped
silently forward, took off his cap, and stood before the
commandant and said, "I am a Catholic priest. Let me
take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children."
Astounded, the icy-faced Nazi commandant asked, "What
does this Polish pig want?"
Father Kolbe pointed with his hand to the condemned
Franciszek Gajowniczek and repeated "I am a Catholic
priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because
he has a wife and children."
Observers believed in horror that the commandant would be
angered and would refuse the request, or would order the
death of both men. The commandant remained silent for a
moment. What his thoughts were on being confronted by this
brave priest we have no idea. Amazingly, however, he acceded
to the request. Apparently, the Nazis had more use for a
young worker than for an old one, and was happy to make the
exchange. Franciszek Gajowniczek was returned to the ranks,
and the priest took his place.
Mr. Gajowniczek would later recall:
"I could only thank him with my eyes. I was
stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The
immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone
else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me - a
stranger. Is this some dream?
I was put back into my place without having had time
to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I
owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this. The
news quickly spread all round the camp. It was the first
and the last time that such an incident happened in the
whole history of Auschwitz.
For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of
Maximilian. By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed
his death warrant. But now, on reflection, I understood
that a man like him could not have done otherwise. Perhaps
he thought that as a priest his place was beside the
condemned men to help them keep hope. In fact he was with
them to the to the last.'‘
Father Kolbe was thrown down the stairs of Building 13 along with the other victims and simply left there to starve. Hunger and thirst soon gnawed at the men. Some drank their own urine, others licked moisture on the dank walls. Maximilian Kolbe encouraged the others with prayers, psalms, and meditations on the Passion of Christ. After two weeks, only four were alive. The cell was needed for more victims, and the camp executioner, a common criminal called Bock, came in and injected a lethal dose of cabolic acid into the left arm of each of the four dying men. Kolbe was the only one still fully conscious and with a prayer on his lips, the last prisoner raised his arm for the executioner.
A personal testimony about the way Maximilian Kolbe met death
was given by Bruno Borgowiec, who said this to his parish priest before he died in 1947:
"The ten condemned to death went through terrible days. From the underground cell in which they were shut up there continually arose the echo of prayers and canticles. The man in-charge of emptying the buckets of urine found them always empty. Thirst drove the prisoners to drink the contents. 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, Father Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the centre as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men.
Father Kolbe never asked for anything and did not complain, rather he encouraged the others, saying that the fugitive might be found and then they would all be freed. One of the SS guards remarked: this priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him ..
Two weeks passed in this way. Meanwhile one after another they died, until only Father 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 sick-quarters, a German named Bock, who gave Father Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid in the vein of his left arm. Father 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 had left I returned to the cell, where I found Father Kolbe leaning in a sitting position against the back wall with his eyes open and his head drooping sideways. His face was calm and radiant."
Father Maximilian Kolbe was executed on August 14, 1941 at the age of
47 years, a martyr of charity. The death certificate indicated the hour of death 12.30.