Despite it being a place of pure evil, the Auschwitz death camp was also the location of several acts of heroism and self-sacrifice, none more so than that of Maximilian Kobe. The Franciscan friar gave his life so that another man – a stranger to him – might live. For others, his sacrifice was extraordinary. For Maximilian himself, however, there was no question of doing anything else. So strong was his faith that he never wavered or asked for better treatment, even when the end got closer and closer.
Maximilian was born in Poland in 1894. At the age of just 12, he claimed to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary. According to his own account, she asked the youth if he would be willing to devote himself to a pure, holy life. She also asked if he would be willing to wear a red crown – a symbol of martyrdom. Maximilian accepted both. Within a couple of years, he had become ordained as a Franciscan friar, though he also carried on with his education, eventually earning a Ph.D. in philosophy. During the 1920s and 1930s, he traveled widely, building a monastery in Japan and another in India, before poor health forced him to return to his native Poland in 1936.
When the Nazis invaded his country, Maximilian was given the chance to earn enhanced rights and privileges in exchange for signing a document recognizing his German ancestry. He refused. He also could have had a much easier time under the occupation had he given up publishing religious texts. But he also declined to do this. In fact, his books and essays became increasingly critical of the Nazis. That’s why, in February of 1941, his monastery was shut down and he was arrested by the Gestapo. Within a couple of days, he was being transferred to the infamous Auschwitz death camp, as prisoner number 16670.
In the camp, Maximilian saw it his duty to carry on in his priestly manner, even though this got him regular beatings. Then, in July 1941, came his ultimate test of faith. Ten prisoners had succeeded in escaping. In order to deter other outbreaks, the Nazi guards picked ten prisoners to be starved to death in an underground bunker. One of the men chosen cried out that he had a wife and children, so the priest offered to take his place among the condemned. So, along with nine others, he was thrown into the bunker and left to die a slow, agonizing death.
One of the men employed to clean the camp survived to tell the story. He revealed that Maximilian led the condemned men in prayer. In all, he lasted two weeks, and was the last of the prisoners to die. Indeed, the guards ultimately had to give him a lethal injection – which, according to witnesses, he accepted with good grace and serenity. By 1955, he had been recognized by the Catholic Church and was on the way to Sainthood. He was canonized in 1982 and named a martyr of charity. And the man whose place in the bunker he took? He lived to be 93 years old and dedicated much of his life to telling the world about his savior’s act of sacrifice.