80 years ago, Maksymilian Kolbe gave his life for his fellow Auschwitz prisoner

On July 29, 1941, during an assembly in the German camp of Auschwitz, Franciscan Maksymilian Kolbe agreed to voluntarily give his life for his fellow prisoner Franciszek Gajowniczek, one of ten sentenced to death by starvation in retaliation for the escape of one of the prisoners.

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The Franciscan Maksymilian Maria Kolbe, born on Jan 8, 1894, was sent to Auschwitz on May 28, 1941. Initially, he worked on collecting gravel for the construction of a fence near the crematorium, then joined the team that was building a fence around the pasture.

At the end of July 1941, a prisoner, Zygmunt Pilawski, escaped from the camp. As a punishment, the camp’s deputy commandant, Karl Fritzsch, chose ten prisoners and sentenced them to death by starvation. Among them was Franciszek Gajowniczek.

“The unhappy fate fell on me. With the words ‘Ah, I feel sorry for my wife and children who I am orphaning,’ I went to the end of the block. I was about to go to death row. Father Maksymilian heard these words. He left the ranks, approached Fritzsch and tried to kiss his hand. He expressed the will to go to death for me,” Mr Gajowniczek said in 1946, describing the friar’s heroic attitude.

Father Kolbe was still alive after two weeks of torment. On August 14, 1941, he was killed by a German prisoner, Hans Bock, who injected him with a lethal phenol.

Franciszek Gajowniczek survived the war. He died in 1995 at the age of 94.

Maximilian Kolbe was beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1971 and canonised by John Paul II eleven years later. He became the first Polish martyr during WWII to be raised to the altars.

The Germans established the Auschwitz camp in 1940, initially for the imprisonment of Poles. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was established two years later. It became the site of the mass extermination of Jews. There was also a network of sub-camps in the complex. The Germans killed at least 1.1 million people at Auschwitz, mainly Jews, but also Poles, Roma and Soviet prisoners of war.