80 years ago, Catholic priest Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to die at Auschwitz in the place of a man who cried out for his family. He was canonized in 1982, and the man he saved was at his ceremony
On February 17, 1941, his monastery was shut down by the German authorities. Kolbe and four others were arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in the Pawiak prison. On May28, he was transferred to Auschwitz as prisoner 16670.
Continuing to act as a priest, Kolbe was subjected to violent harassment, including beating and lashings.
At the end of July 1941, one prisoner escaped from the camp, prompting SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the deputy camp commander, to pick ten men to be starved to death in an underground bunker to deter further escape attempts.When one of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, "My wife! My children!", Kolbe volunteered to take his place.
According to an eyewitness, who was an assistant janitor at that time, in his prison cell Kolbe led the prisoners in prayer. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After they had been starved and deprived of water for two weeks, only Kolbe remained alive.
The guards wanted the bunker emptied, so they gave Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Kolbe is said to have raised his left arm and calmly waited for the deadly injection. He died on August 14. His remains were cremated on August 15, the feast day of the Assumption of Mary.
Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man he saved, dedicated his life to spreading Kolbe’s story. Sadly his two sons died shortly after liberation, but he reunited with his wife Helena and lived with her happily for 30 year.
He died at the age of 93 in 1995 so he got a wonderful gift of a full and eventful life.