Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe was born Raymund Kolbe on 8
January 1894 in Zduńska Wola, which was part of the Russian
Empire at the time. He adopted the name Maximilian after his final
vows in Rome and added the name Maria to show his devotion to Mary. In a
childhood vision that he had of the Blessed Mother, he saw her holding two
crowns, one white and the other red and asked him to accept either of them. He
interpreted the white crown as symbolizing purity and the red one as
symbolizing martyrdom and responded that he would accept both.
He joined religious life when he was only 16 years of age.
He was ordained a priest when he was 24 years of age (1918) and by the time he
was 25 had earned Doctoral degrees in both Philosophy and Theology. His strong
devotion to Mary led him to to form the Militia Immaculate or Army of Mary and
through this organization to publish catechetical and devotional leaflets for
distribution to tens of thousands of people.
He was unafraid to speak against injustice and oppression
and especially against the atrocities of the Nazi regime. During the Second
World War, he provided shelter to refugees from Greater
Poland, including 2,000 Jews whom he hid from Nazi persecution in
On 17 February 1941, he was arrested by the German Gestapo
and imprisoned in the Pawiak prison. On 28 May, he was transferred to Auschwitz
as prisoner #16670. At the end of July 1941, three prisoners disappeared from
the camp, prompting the deputy camp commander, to pick 10 men to be starved to
death in an underground bunker in order to deter further escape attempts. Kolbe
volunteered to take the place of one of the selected men Franciszek Gajowniczek because he was
married and had children as well. In the starvation cell, he celebrated Mass
each day and sang hymns with the prisoners.
He led the other condemned men in song and prayer and
encouraged them by telling them they would soon be with Mary in Heaven. 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 two weeks of
dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards wanted the
bunker emptied and they gave Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid.
Some who were present at the injection say that he raised his left arm and
calmly waited for the injection. His
remains were cremated on 15 August, the feast of the Assumption of Mary.
The life and death of Maximilian Kolbe is a reminder to
each of us that a life lived in the service of others is indeed a life worth
living. For such a person, death holds no threat or fear, because in losing
his/her life such a person gains eternal life as Maximilian Kolbe did.