Part of an occasional series on living with hardship
At age 17, Raymond Kolbe entered a Franciscan seminary, taking the name Maximilian. As a young man, he was stricken with tuberculosis, which collapsed one lung and badly damaged the other. He lived with pain and weakness for the rest of his life.
Nevertheless, Maximilian Kolbe was a tireless preacher of the Gospel with a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother. He published monthly reviews and a daily Catholic newspaper, and created a radio station to proclaim the Gospel. He also established a junior seminary to accommodate the flood of vocations in Poland, which many attributed to Kolbe’s work.
In early 1939, Father Maximilian was arrested by the Nazis and deported to Germany. Three months later, he was released. He immediately returned to Poland, where he created a shelter for 3,000 Polish refugees, most of whom were Jews.
In 1941, Kolbe was again arrested and eventually sent to Auschwitz, where he was assigned to a work crew with other priests. Father Maximilian was singled out for special punishment, receiving merciless beatings at the hands of a vicious guard. Despite his incapacitating tuberculosis, Father Kolbe accepted the hard work and beatings with grace. He often remarked, "Mary gives me strength. All will be well."
One day, the guard loaded heavy planks upon Father Kolbe’s back, then ordered him to run. When Kolbe collapsed, the guard kicked him repeatedly and ordered his men to give him 50 lashes. Maximilian Kolbe eventually lost consciousness and was left for dead in the Auschwitz mud. Later, his friends smuggled him into the camp infirmary. Although suffering greatly, Father Kolbe secretly heard confessions in the hospital, assuring the prisoners of God’s compassionate love.
Men often gathered in secret to listen to Kolbe’s words in a place where faith and hope had died. But his faith was more than words alone. Father Maximilian often shared his meager portion of food with others, or went without food altogether so others could go ahead of him in line.
In July 1941, three prisoners escaped from Auschwitz. In reprisal, 10 men were selected to die a horrible death in the underground starvation bunker. The last man chosen cried out in despair that he would never see his wife or children again. At that, Father Kolbe stepped forward and offered himself in the man’s place. Calmly, he lined up with the other condemned prisoners and marched to the death block.
In the ensuing days, prisoners heard loud praying and singing, led by Father Kolbe, from the starvation bunker. Sympathetic guards smuggled in unleavened bread and wine so he could celebrate the Eucharist with the dying men.
As the men grew weaker, the prayers became whispered. Guards reported that at each inspection, the men in the bunker begged for their lives, but not Father Kolbe. They always found him kneeling or standing in the center of his cell, gazing cheerfully at the Nazis.
After two weeks of starvation and dehydration, Father Kolbe alone was alive. This infuriated the Nazis, who needed his cell for new victims. To solve the problem, they injected Father Kolbe with carbolic acid. He died with the peaceful expression of a man who had known all his life that this moment would come.
It was said that the heroism of Father Kolbe echoed through Auschwitz. A fellow prisoner described Kolbe’s death as "a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength. It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp."
Maximilian Kolbe was canonized in 1982 by Pope John Paul II. St. Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us.
M. Regina Cram is a freelance writer and lives in Glastonbury.