St. Maximilian Kolbe

 Young Maximilian’s mother once said to him, “My little [son], I don’t know what’s going to become of you!” Some time later, seeing him always serious, recollected and praying with tears in his eyes, she asked him, “What’s wrong with you?”

            Patricia  Treece, in her “A Man for Others,” continued the mother’s account: “Trembling and with tears in his eyes, he told me, ‘When you said to me, ‘What will become of you?’ I prayed very hard to Our Lady to tell me what would become of me. And later in the church I prayed again. Then the Virgin Mother appeared to me holding in her hands two crowns, one white and one red. She looked at me with love and she asked me if I would like to have them. The white meant that I would remain pure and the red that I would be a martyr.

‘I answered yes, I wanted them. Then the Virgin looked at me tenderly and disappeared.’”[1]

            In March of 1938, before the invasion of Poland, Fr. Maximilian said to his Franciscan Brothers:

            “During the first three centuries, the Church was persecuted. The blood of martyrs watered the seeds of Christianity. Later, when the persecutions ceased, one of the Fathers of the Church deplored the lukewarmness of Christians. He rejoiced when persecutions returned. In the same way, we must rejoice in what will happen, for in the midst of trials our zeal will become more ardent. Besides, are we not in the hands of the Blessed Virgin? Is it not our most ardently desired ideal to give our lives for her? We live only once. We die only once. Therefore, let it be according to her good pleasure.”[2]

            Now in Auschwitz, Treece continues: “Kolbe did no survive Auschwitz. If it was not for lack of resources, it was also no a question of bad luck. He was never condemned. His death was a purely supernatural event. He himself explained it in advance to the young priest Sigismund Ruszczak that summer of 1941. To Ruszczak he said, without giving any further details, that he would not be leaving the camp alive because he had a mission to do for God through the Immaculata. Another priest friend, John Lipski, recalls that Kolbe said to him, ‘We must do a great work for God here’… Long ago, in the vision that called him to sanctity, Mary had held out to him the mystical white crown reserved for the pure in heart and body. He had earned it early and re-earned it in

Auschwitz. But there had been a blood-colored crown as well, the one reserved for the man who overcomes his instinctive clinging to this existence to offer his very life for another out of love of God. To glorify God who can forge such heroes and call down the blessings of such a sacrifice on the camp, Kolbe pout on the armor of God … and drawing his strength from the Lord’s might power… he waited for this final battle.”[3]

            In the camp, Kolbe confided to one prisoner who had gone to confession to him: “If I have to die, I would like it to be on the feast of Our Lady.”[4]

            Then, “As July [1941] came to an end, the next feast of the Mother of God, that of her assumption into heaven, lay fifteen days away. With harvest season in full swing, one prisoner assigned to swell the farm details began dreaming of escape through the open fields. Joseph Sobolewski, who arrived at Auschwitz in August 1940 as number 2, 877 in the first Warsaw transport, recalls that there had already been two prisoners that summer who successfully fled that way. But the Nazis made sure such events were no occasion for rejoicing among those left behind. It took a certain kind of desperation to run away, knowing what others would pay. On almost the last day of July, the dreamer had become that desperate. He escaped. He was from Block 14, Kolbe’s block. Ten men will be taken at Commandant Fritsch’s whim to die of starvation.

            Six hundred men line up for the selection. When the grisly affair is complete, Fritsch checks the secretary’s list against the numbers on the condemned. As their German passion for accuracy occupies them, one of the victims is sobbing, ‘My wife and my children!’ It is Francis Gajowniczek. The SS ignore him.

            “Suddenly, there is movement in the still ranks. A prisoner several rows back has broken out and is pushing his way toward the front. The SS guards watching this Block raise their automatic rifles, while the dogs at their heels tense for the order to spring. Fritsch and Palitsch too reach toward their holsters. The prisoner steps past the first row.

            “It is Kolbe. His step is firm, his face peaceful. Angrily, the Block capo shouts at him to stop or e shot. Kolbe answers calmly, ‘I want to talk to the commander,’ and keeps on walking while the cap, oddly enough, neither shoots nor clubs him. Then, still at a respectful distance, Kolbe stops, his cap in his hands. Standing at attention like an officer so some sort himself, he looks Fritsch straight in the eye.

            ‘Herr Kommandant, I wish to make a request, please,’ he says politely in flawless German.

            Survivors will later say it is a miracle that n one shoots him. Instead, Fritsch asks, ‘What do you want?’

            ‘I want to die in place of this prisoner,’ and Kolbe points toward the sobbing Gajowniczek. He presents this audacious request without a stammer. Fritsch looks stupefied, irritated. Everyone notes how the German lord of life and death, suddenly nervous, actually steps back a pace.

            The prisoner explains coolly, as if they were discussing some everyday matter, that the man over there has a family.

            ‘I have no wife or children. Besides, I’m old and not good for anything. He’s in better condition,’ he adds, adroitly playing on the Nazi line that only the fit should live.

            ‘Who are you?’ Fritsch croaks.

            ‘A Catholic  priest.’

            Fritsch is silent. The stunned Block, audience to this drama, expect him in usual Auschwitz fashion to show no mercy but sneer, and take both men. Instead, after a moment, the deputy-commander snaps, ‘Request granted.’ As if he needs to expel some fury, he kicks Gajowniczek, snarling, ‘Back to ranks, you!’

* * * * * * * * * *

“By some act of God, the prisoner-interpreter who would watch Kolbe’s last days came out of Auschwitz alive. Number 1, 192 Bruno Borgowiez.”[5]  Borgowiec reports:

‘I overheard the SS talking about him among themselves. They were admiring his courage and behavior. One of them said, “So einen wie diesen Pfarrer haben wir hier noch nicht gehabt. Das muss ein ganz aussergewohlicher Mensch sein.” (We’ve never had a priest here like this one. He must be a wholly exceptional man.”)… In this way, two weeks went by. The prisoners were dying one after the other, and by this time only four were left, among them Father Kolbe, who was still conscious. The SS decided things were taking too long… One day they sent for the German criminal Bock from the hospital to give the prisoners injections of carbolic acid. After the needle prick in the vein of the left arm, you could follow the instant swelling as it moved up the arm toward the chest. When it reached the heart, the victim would fall dead. Between injection and death was a little more than ten seconds.

‘When Bock got there, I had to accompany them to the cell. I saw Father Kolbe, with a prayer, himself hold out his arm to the executioner. I couldn’t bear it. With the excuse that I had some work to do, I left. But as soon as the SS and their executioner were gone, I returned.

‘The other naked, begrimed corpses were lying on the floor, their faces betraying signs of their sufferings. Father Kolbe was sitting upright, leaning against the far wall. His body was not dirty like the others, but clean and bright. The head was tilted somewhat to one side. His eyes were open. Serene and pure, his face was radiant.”[6]

* * * * * * *

“Kolbe’s canonization was set for St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, October 10, 1982. But a question had arisen. Father Kolbe was widely regarded as a martyr, but was he a ‘martyr’ in the technical sense of the term – someone who had died because of odium fidei, ‘hatred of the faith’? He had not been arrested because of odium fidei, and witnesses to his self-sacrifice had testified that the Auschwitz commandant, Fritsch, had simply accepted Kolbe’s self-substitution for the condemned Franciszek Gajowniczek without evincing any particular satisfaction that he was killing a priest. The theologians and experts of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints… had argued that Kolbe , while undoubtedly a saint, was not a martyr in the traditional sense of the term. At Kolbe’s beatification in 1971, Pope Paul VI had said that Kolbe could be considered a ‘martyr of charity,’ but this was a personal gesture and the category lacked standing in theology or canon law. Since then, though, the Polish and German bishops had petitioned the Holy See that Kolbe be canonized as a martyr, rather than as a saintly confessor who happened to have died under extraordinary circumstances.


“John Paul II appointed two special judges to consider the question from the theological and historical points of view. Their reports were then submitted to a special advisory commission. The majority of the commission concluded that Blessed Maximilian Kolbe’s self-sacrifice did not satisfy the traditional criteria for martyrdom, heroic as it undoubtedly was. On the day of his canonization, it was unclear whether Kolbe would be given the accolade of a martyr, as many Poles, Germans, and others wished.


On October 10, 1982, a magnificent autumn morning, found a quarter of a million people in St. Peter’s Square, where they saw a great banner, a portrait of Father Kolbe, draped from the central loggia. Still, the question hung in the air: Would Kolbe be recognized as a martyr? The answer came when John Paul II processed out of the basilica and into the square wearing red vestments, the liturgical color of martyrs. He had overridden the counsel of his advisory commission, and in his homily he declared that ‘in virtue of my apostolic authority, I have decreed that Maximilian Mary Kolbe, who following his beatification was venerated as a confessor, will henceforth be venerated also as a martyr.


“John Paul II was making an important theological point in deciding that St. Maximilian Kolbe was indeed a martyr – systematic hatred for the human person (systematic odium hominis, so to speak) was a contemporary equivalent of the traditional criterion for martyrdom, odium fidei. Because Christian faith affirmed the truth about the inalienable dignity of the human person, anyone who hated that truth hated, implicitly, the Christian faith. Modern totalitarianism was an implicit form of odium fidei, because it reduced persons to things.”[7]





[1] Patricia Treece, “A Man for Others,” OSV (1982) 1.

[2] Ibid 107.

[3] Ibid 164-165.

[4] Ibid 166.

[5] Ibid 173.

[6]  Ibid. 175-176.

[7] George Weigel, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” Cliffside Books (1999) 447-448.