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The priest who volunteered to die

Saturday, August 14th marked the 80th anniversary of the death of Fr. Maximilian Mary Kolbe in Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi concentration camp in southern Poland.Fr. Kolbe was by no means the only priest or pastor to be interned and executed by Hitler’s regime. (At the beginning of World War II there were 10,217 Catholic priests in Poland.Over one-third [3,646] were sent to concentration camps, and of these, two-thirds [2,647] eventually died).

However, it is the situation surrounding Fr. Kolbe’s death that makes his story so remarkable.

On February 17th, 1941, Fr. Kolbe and four of his colleagues were arrested by the Gestapo at the Franciscan monastery Niepokalanów near Warsaw, which he had established in 1927. Their ‘crime’ was offering shelter to thousands of refugees from Greater Poland including Jews, and publishing anti-Nazi material.

On May 28th, Fr. Kolbe was transferred to Auschwitz and branded prisoner number 16670.

During the following months, Fr. Kolbe was forced to perform hard labour in the work camp, which included carrying planks and blocks of heavy stone for the building of the crematorium wall. Nevertheless, he continued to act as a priest in the camp, secretly saying Mass, hearing confessions, and sharing his meagre rations of food with others.

For his trouble, Fr. Kolbe was subjected to violent harassment, including beatings and lashings. He was singled out for particularly brutal treatment by the capo overseeing the work party, a vicious ex-criminal known as ‘Bloody Krott’. Yet even after being beaten within an inch of his life, Fr. Kolbe continued to proclaim the goodness and mercy of God, and exhort his fellow prisoners to pray for the conversion of their Nazi tormentors.

On July 24th or 25th, Fr. Kolbe was transferred to Block 14. Shortly afterwards one of the inmates from the block attempted to escape. As a result, all of the men in Block 14 were forced to stand for a day-long roll call in the hot sun, in ten lines of about sixty men. Exhausted and paralysed by fear, they heard the deputy camp commander, SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, announce: “The fugitive has not been found. In reprisal for your comrade’s escape, ten of you will die by starvation.”

The officer passed slowly along the columns of terrified men and began to randomly select his victims. Suddenly one of the condemned men started sobbing and cried out, “My wife! My children!” The man’s name was Franciszek Gajowniczek, a 40-year-old Polish army sergeant from Warsaw. At that point, another man stepped forward, unbidden — Maximilian Kolbe. “I want to speak to the commander … I want to make a request, please … I want to die in place of this prisoner.”

Hearing the commotion, the Nazi commander said, “What does this Polish pig want?” Fr. Kolbe pointed with his hand to 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.

Somewhat flabbergasted, the commander ordered Gajowniczek back to the ranks and accepted Fr. Kolbe in his place. Ted Wojtkowski, an inmate of Block 14, recalled thinking at that moment, “I’ve just seen a saint made.” Years later, Gajowniczek described the immensity of the sacrifice that saved his life:

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.”

Fr. Kolbe and the other condemned men were stripped naked and taken to a dark, fetid underground bunker. They were left with no food and no water — just a bucket in which to relieve themselves. Throughout the following two weeks, Fr. Kolbe led the dying men in prayers, rosaries, and hymns. Each time the guards checked on the prisoners, Fr. Kolbe could be seen praying in the middle of the cell. Bruno Borgowiec, a Polish prisoner who served as an interpreter in the dungeon, shared this eyewitness account with his parish priest before he died in 1947:

“Each day when the guards made their routine visits, they ordered prisoners to carry off the bodies of the men who had died during the night. I was always present during these visits because I had to write the names of the dead into the records and translate what the prisoners had to say or request.

“From the cell where the unfortunate men were, one heard prayers being said aloud. These included the Rosary and hymns. Prisoners in other cells joined the activities. During moments when the guards were away, I went down into the dungeon to say something and console the companions.

“Fervent prayers and hymns to the Blessed Virgin resounded throughout the dungeon. I felt like I was in church. Father Maximilian Kolbe led the prayers and all the others gave the response. Sometimes they were so engrossed in prayer that they did not notice the approach of the guards for the routine visit. At a shout from them, the voices would hush.

“At length, as they were getting weak, they said the prayers softly. When all were lying on the floor, one would see on every visit Father Maximilian Kolbe on his feet or on his knees in their midst, peacefully watching for the approach of the guards. The guards knew he had offered to die, and they knew all those who were with him were dying innocently. Therefore, they felt respect for Father Kolbe and said to one another: “That priest is certainly a good man. We have not had anyone here like him up to now.”

One by one, the prisoners died in excruciating agony. By the third week, only four of them remained alive, including Fr. Kolbe. The guards wanted the cell emptied, so they ordered the director of the infirmary, a German criminal named Boch, to give the men an injection of carbolic acid. Those present said that Fr. Kolbe calmly accepted death, and extended his arm to the executioner.

When Bruno Borgowiec returned to the cell, he found Fr. Kolbe with eyes opened, seated, leaning against the wall and head bowed to his left (his habitual posture). “His body was very clean and luminously glowing. Anyone would have been impressed by his appearance and would have thought himself to be in the presence of a saint. His face beamed with peace, in contrast to the other dead, whose bodies, stretched out on the floor, were soiled and whose faces showed suffering … His eyes were wide open and concentrated on one point. His whole appearance was one in ecstasy. It was a sight I shall never forget.”

It could be said that Fr. Kolbe’s whole life had been directed toward this moment. When he was twelve years old, he had a vision of the Virgin Mary, holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked Kolbe if he was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that he should persevere in purity. The red one indicated that he should become a martyr. Kolbe replied that he would accept them both.

On October 10th, 1982, Maximilian Mary Kolbe was canonised by his fellow Pole, Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla), at the Vatican. Among the 150,000 people who filled St. Peter’s Square was a haggard, tall and gray-haired Polish peasant. At the end of the three-hour ceremony, Pope John Paul II descended from the altar in front of the doors of St. Peter’s Basilica, and walked over to the man. The Pope embraced the old man and kissed him. He was prisoner number 5659, Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man Fr. Kolbe had died to save. The Pope said, “Maximilian did not die, but gave his life … for his brother.”

Maximilian Kolbe’s heroic act of self-sacrifice is exemplary, but it should not be exceptional. According to Jesus, the willingness to ‘lay down one’s life’, whether literally or figuratively, is the litmus test of a genuine shepherd (John 10.11). On the other hand, Jesus castigated the religious leaders of his day, referring to them as ‘hirelings’ whose main motivation was self-preservation: “A hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep” (John 10.12-13).

Similarly, David, a man after God’s heart, demonstrated the character of a true shepherd when he risked his own life to rescue the lambs from ravenous lions and bears (1 Sam 17.34-35). But in stark contrast, the Lord pronounced judgment on the shepherds of Israel who amassed personal wealth and power at the expense of the flock: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock” (Ezek 34.2-3).

To be honest, I find it hard to imagine a modern-day TV evangelist or celebrity pastor making the same kind of sacrifice as Fr. Kolbe. After all, they’re too crucial to the program to die for an obscure individual like John or Jane Doe. (Remember, the show must go on ….). Yet ironically, the greatest pastor of all, Jesus Christ, did precisely that. He took my place on the Cross. He suffered in my stead. He bore the punishment for my sins.

And as a good shepherd he laid down his own life, a life that was infinitely more valuable than mine, that I may live forever in the presence of the Lord.

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