It was 78 years ago that a Polish Franciscan priest by the name Maximilian Kolbe was deported by Nazi German occupiers to the death camp in Auschwitz that was soon to become not only a scene of cold-blooded extermination of Poles, Jews and members of other ethnicities, but also the place where the priest selflessly gave his life for another human being.
Today a saint, on May 28, 1941, a priest and prisoner of the Pawiak Prison in German-controlled Warsaw, Maximilian Kolbe was transported to the Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz. Having received an inmate number 16670, he was initially forced to work transporting gravel for the construction of a fence surrounding a crematorium, where bodies of deceased prisoners were being burned.
Later on, he was moved to another work post in the village of Babice, where he met another prisoner – a pre-WWII deputy boxing champion Tadeusz “Teddy” Pietrzykowski. One day, a foreman was beating Kolbe and, challenging the abuser to a boxing fight, “Teddy” decided to teach him a lesson. After a split second the foreman was struck to the ground, however, Kolbe beseeched “Teddy” not to beat the German.
Then, at the end of July, a prisoner escaped the death camp. As a means of retaliation, the deputy camp commandant assembled the prisoners and selected 10 of them to die a slow death by starvation. One of them was Franciszek Gajowniczek.
“Having said ‘Oh, how I pity my wife and children whom I am about to orphan’ I made my way to the end of the bloc. I was about to be sent to the death cell. Those words were heard by Father Maksymilian. He stepped out of the line, approached [the death camp commandant Karl] Fritzsch and tried to kiss his hand. He said he wanted to go instead of me,” Franciszek Gajowniczek recounted in 1946.
Upon closing the door to the death cell in the terrifying bloc nr 11, a Nazi German soldier allegedly told those sentenced to death “you will wither like tulips.”
“At first, the prisoners were screaming out of despair, blaspheming against God. Later, under Father Kolbe’s influence, they began to pray and sing songs to the Holy Mother. The priest gave them comfort, he was listening to their confessions and preparing them for death,” recalled Gajowniczek.
Father Kolbe was still alive after two weeks of starvation until he was put to death on August 14, 1941, by a German criminal prisoner Hans Bock who injected phenol into his body. A couple of weeks before his death, Kolbe had told one of his fellow inmates: “Hate is not a creative force. Love is a creative force.”
On Thursday, the 78th anniversary of Maksymilian Kolbe’s transportation to Auschwitz was commemorated by his Franciscans brothers who prayed in front of the Death Wall at the block 11 courtyard in the former Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz. They also laid flowers in Reverend Kolbe’s cell found in the basement of block 11.
Kolbe was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1982. He is one of the 20th-century martyrs commemorated in statues erected above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey by the Dean and Chapter in 1998.