St. Maximilian Kolbe

St. Maximilian Kolbe gave his life in the Auschwitz concentration camp to save a condemned father of a family.

Pedro Estaún-August 14, 2023-Reading time: 4 minutes
St. Maximilian Kolbe

St. Maximilian Kolbe

Maria Dabrowska, mother of St. MaximilianShe was a pious young woman who thought of becoming a nun, but the political problems of the time did not make it possible. Poland, her homeland, was occupied by the Russians, who had closed the convents and dispersed the religious. There were only a few clandestine convents. Then he asked: "Lord, I do not want to impose my will on you. If your designs were otherwise, give me at least a husband who does not blaspheme, does not drink alcohol, does not go to the tavern to have fun. I ask you, Lord, with real interest". She wanted to start a Christian family life and God listened to her. The chosen one was Julius Kolbe, a fervent Catholic who belonged to the Franciscan Third Order, of which he was a leader and into which she also entered. He was sweet and sensitive, almost shy, and without vices.

The young couple lived in the city of Pabiance, where they had a workshop and had a great devotion to the miraculous image of Our Lady of Czestochowa, highly venerated in Poland. It is not surprising that one of their sons, Raymond, born in 1894, decided to enter the seminary, and did so at the age of 13 with the Franciscan Fathers in the Polish city of Lvov, which was then occupied by Austria. It was there that he adopted the name Maximilian. He finished his studies in Rome where he obtained a doctorate in theology and later in philosophy. In 1918 he was ordained a priest.

The Immaculate Conception

Maximilian was very devoted to the Immaculate Conception. Moved by this, he founded in 1917 a movement called "The Militia of the Immaculate" whose members would consecrate themselves to the Blessed Virgin Mary and would have the objective of fighting by all morally valid means for the construction of the Kingdom of God throughout the world. In Maximilian's own words, the movement would have: "a global vision of Catholic life under a new form, which consists in the union with the Immaculate". He initiated the publication of the monthly magazine "Caballero de la Inmaculada" (Knight of the Immaculate)., oriented to promote knowledge, love and service to the Virgin Mary in the task of converting souls for Christ. With a circulation of 500 copies in 1922, it would reach close to one million copies in 1939.

In 1929 he founded the first "City of the Immaculate" in the Franciscan friary of Niepokalanów, 40 kilometers from Warsaw, which over time would become a city consecrated to Our Lady and, in the words of St. Maximilian, dedicated to "conquering the whole world, all souls, for Christ, for the Immaculate, using all licit means, all technological discoveries, especially in the field of communications".

Missionary and prisoner

In 1931, the Pope requested missionaries to evangelize Asia. Maximilian volunteered and was sent to Japan where he remained for five years. There he founded a new city of the Immaculate Conception. (Mugenzai No Sono) and publishes the magazine "Knight of the Immaculate Conception" in Japanese (Seibo No Kishi). He returned to Poland as spiritual director of Niepokalanów, and three years later, in the middle of the World War, he was imprisoned along with other friars and sent to concentration camps in Germany and Poland.

He was released a short time later, precisely on the day dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, but was taken prisoner again in February 1941 and sent to the Pawiak prison, and then transferred to the Auschwitz concentration camp where, despite the terrible living conditions, he continued his ministry. He was assigned the number 16,670 and sent to forced labor. Like his comrades, he suffered humiliations, beatings, insults, dog bites, jets of ice water when he was devoured by fever, thirst, hunger, dragging corpses back and forth from the cells to the crematorium oven... Auschwitz was the anteroom to hell.

The dedication of his life

One night in 1941 a prisoner escaped from the concentration camp and, according to an intimidating rule of the Nazis, for every man who escaped, ten should die. The first choice fell on 41-year-old Polish sergeant Franciszek Gajowniczek, who in the midst of the silence began to cry and say, "My God, I have a wife and children. Who is going to take care of them?" Then Maximilian Kolbe offered to replace him, saying, "I offer myself to replace this man, I am a Catholic priest and a Pole, and I am not married."

The officer agreed and Father Kolbe was sent, along with the other nine, to a cell where they would receive neither food nor water. On the second or third day some of them began to die. In the meantime, prayers and hymns to the Virgin were heard in that dungeon. The Germans had a Polish guard in charge of removing the corpses of those who died and emptying the latrine placed in the cell. He has told it, and his account is in the coffers of the courts of justice and in the Vatican archives. Kolbe and three others lasted until the fifteenth day. The commandant needed the cell for a new batch of condemned prisoners and had the camp doctor give them an injection of carbolic acid to extinguish the last pulse of their lives. It was August 14, 1941. Kolbe was 47 years old.

Beatification and canonization

Pope Paul VI declared him blessed in 1971. Among the pilgrims who attended from Poland was a little old man by the name of Franciszek Gajowniczek: he was the man for whom Kolbe had given his own life thirty years earlier. Years later, John Paul II, shortly after his election as Roman Pontiff, visited Auschwitz and said: "Maximilian Kobe did as Jesus did, he did not suffer death but gave his life". On October 10, 1982, this pope, a Pole like Kolbe, canonized him before an enormous crowd gathered in St. Peter's Square, including many Poles.

On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of his canonization, the Friars Minor Conventual of Poland opened the archives of Niepokalanow (City of the Immaculate). Among the saint's manuscripts, the last letter he wrote to his mother stands out. A letter that reflects a special tenderness and that makes one think that the sacrifice with which he offered his life voluntarily was something that matured throughout his life. This is the text of the letter:

"Dear Mother: Towards the end of May I arrived together with a railway convoy at the Auschwitz concentration camp. As for me, everything is going well, dear mother. You can rest assured for me and for my health, because the good God is everywhere and thinks with great love of everyone and everything. You had better not write to me before I send you another letter because I do not know how long I shall be here. With cordial greetings and kisses, Raymond Kolbe". Maximiliano was unable to send any new letters to his mother.

The authorPedro Estaún

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