On May 28, 1941, Kolbe was transported to Auschwitz where he became prisoner #16670. Here, he was forced to carry the heavy blocks that would be used to build the crematorium.
But Kolbe was determined to continue his work as a priest. He would share his meager rations with the other prisoners or else ensure others got them first. Each evening, he would visit the bunks of his fellow prisoners, offering them consolation and counsel.
His humanity earned him the hatred of some of the guards, who would bully and beat him in an attempt to break him. One SS guard, known as “Bloody Krott” particularly hated the priest. On one occasion, he gave Kolbe the heaviest load to carry and ordered him to run. Kolbe collapsed under the weight and the officer laid into him, kicking him in the face and stomach and giving him 50 lashes. Kolbe was left for dead in the mud. The other prisoners who smuggled him into the prison hospital saved him.
At the end of July 1941, three prisoners managed to escape from the camp. As was the custom, ten of the remaining prisoners were selected to starve to death as an example to the others. Once the names were announced, one of the men, Franciszek Gajowniczek began to cry out in anguish about the fate of his wife and children without him. Kolbe calmly stood forward. ‘I am a Catholic priest, ” he said. ” Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.’
The man he saved could only thank him with his eyes as Kolbe was led away with the rest of the condemned to the camp’s starvation bunker. Here, they were thrown into a single cell and left without food and water. Bruno Borgoweic, one of the few Poles who served in the bunker later described their death. Some men drank their own urine or licked the walls so dreadful was their thirst. But Kolbe remained calm and comforted them, holding prayers and meditations.
Every time the cell was checked, Kolbe was found to be standing or kneeling while the other men lay down. He was tranquil and even smiled at his guards. At the end of two weeks, only four men, including Kolbe was still alive. Kolbe was literally the last man standing while the others lay lifeless. But the guard’s could no longer wait for the inevitable to happen. Wanting the cell clear, they injected the survivors with Carbolic acid.
When his turn came, Kolbe did not resist. He simply raised his arm for the injection. The expression on his face after death was said to be ecstatic. He was cremated in the building he helped construct on August 15, 1941; the feast day of the assumption of Mary.
Sainthood and Controversy
Pope john Paul II canonized Kolbe on October 10, 1982. He is now the patron saint of drug addicts, political prisoners, journalists and the pro-life movement. Survivors of the camps certainly regard him as such. One survivor, Jerzy Bielecki declared that Kolbe’s death was: ‘a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength … It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp.’
But while Kolbe is a Christian martyr by some, others believe he shouldn’t be counted as such -because he did not die to preserve the faith, simply to save a life. And the content of some of the publications of his monastery and his involvement in the Militia Immaculata have led to accusations of anti-Semitism- despite the numerous testimonials to the contrary from the 2000 Polish Jews whose lives he helped to save.
And what of Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man Maximilian Kolbe died to save? Gajowniczek survived the camps and lived to the ripe old age of 95. After Auschwitz, he made his way back to his hometown where he found his wife alive- but his two sons dead. But he never forgot Father Kolbe or ceased to be grateful for the sacrifice he made.