In 2016, Pope Francis visited Poland to celebrate World Youth Day, which is an international gathering of young people hosted by the Roman Catholic church every few years. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, from 187 countries, arrived in Krakow to participate, hurling Poland onto the global scene.
Although the event is meant to be a joyous occasion for young people to celebrate God, there was one somber moment that left the Pope visibly upset—his visit to Auschwitz, the German concentration camp from World War II, which is only about an hour away from Krakow.
Anyone who has visited Auschwitz knows that it’s a dark, gloomy place. The terror and suffering of the millions who died there still pervades the air. As the Pontiff alone stepped through those infamous Arbeit Macht Frei gates, the sun reflecting off his white robes stood in stark contrast to the perpetual darkness that looms over that dismal camp.
One of the most significant moments of the Pope’s visit was his solitary prayer time in the former jail cell of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who made the ultimate sacrifice to save a stranger during World War II at Auschwitz.
The Life of Maximilian Kolbe
Maximilian Maria Kolbe was born Raymund Kolbe on January 8, 1894 in what was, at that time, the Russian partition of Poland.
His transformative religious experience came early in life, when he was only nine years old. He describes that while praying before a statue of the Virgin Mary one day, she appeared before him holding two crowns—one white and one red. The Blessed Mother spoke to him explaining that the white crown represented purity and the red one represented martyrdom. She then asked him if he would accept either of them. He accepted both.
After that defining experience, Kolbe entered into a deeper religious faith than most people do over the course of their entire lives. In 1907, he joined the Conventual Franciscan Friars and was ordained a priest in 1918. It was here that he took on the religious name of Maximilian.
Over the course of his ministry, Father Kolbe promoted the veneration of the Virgin Mary and founded various Catholic media outlets—from a newspaper to a radio station—to spread the Gospel.
He also founded a monastery near Nagasaki, Japan on a mission trip to the far east in 1931. Amazingly, this monastery survived the atomic bomb dropped on the city 14 years later. Today, that same monastery serves as a center of Franciscan missionary activities in Japan.
In 1936, Father Kolbe returned to Poland to a monastery he had founded in 1927 in the town of Niepokalanów, near Warsaw. As Europe moved toward war, the moment at which Father Kolbe would don the red crown he had accepted from the Virgin Mary as a child drew closer.
Wearing the Red Crown
After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, many Franciscan brothers left Father Kolbe’s monastery in Niepokalanów, but not him. It’s important to mention that, although Kolbe’s mother was Polish, his father was German, meaning that he could have enjoyed greater rights under the Nazi regime. He waived those rights.
Instead, Father Kolbe actively resisted the Germans by publishing anti-Nazi writings, providing shelter to persecuted Jews and even turning his monastery into a temporary hospital for victims of the ongoing war.
Such activities did not escape the Nazi authorities for long, and they shut down Father Kolbe’s monastery in 1941 before arresting and sending him to Auschwitz. During his stay at the death camp, Father Kolbe continued to act as a priest for the prisoners, despite suffering through back-breaking labor and severe beatings by the guards.
One day during the summer of 1941, Nazi guards discovered that three prisoners had escaped from the camp. Furious, the Nazi commander ordered that ten prisoners be placed in the camp’s underground starvation cell as retribution.
Ten prisoners were chosen at random to be starved to death. One of them, Polish army sergeant Franciszek Gajowniczek reportedly cried out in anguish that he would never see his wife and children again. At that moment, Father Kolbe, who was not among the condemned, stepped forward and asked the Nazi commander if he could take Gajowniczek’s place in the starvation cell. Shocked, the commander agreed. Gajowniczek was saved and lived until the year 1995. Kolbe was led off to the starvation cell with the other nine prisoners.
In those last days, Father Kolbe led his fellow condemned prisoners in prayer and devotion as they all slowly starved. Eyewitnesses say he never once begged for food or water, but rather focused on comforting his cell-mates. After two weeks, nine out of ten prisoners had died. Only Father Kolbe remained alive.
At this point, the Nazis were frustrated that Father Kolbe wouldn’t die, and they decided to give him a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Father Kolbe peacefully offered his arm up for the needle and left this world on August 14, 1941 at the age of 47.
75 Years Later…
Pope Francis visited this underground cell during the World Youth Day celebrations, as mentioned in the beginning of the article. The knowledge of Father Kolbe’s sacrifice doubtless moved the Pontiff as he silently prayed in the dark, underground cell.
Francis’s predecessor, Saint Pope John Paul II, had canonized Father Kolbe a Saint and named him a martyr in 1982. In the end, Father Kolbe kept his promise to the Virgin Mary. Throughout his life he had worn the white crown of purity and worked for the salvation of others as a priest. In death, he put on the red crown of martyrdom, freely choosing to die in the place of a complete stranger at Auschwitz.
As mentioned, the Auschwitz death camp continues to have an air of hopelessness and despondency. It is ironic, then, that in the deepest and darkest corner of this “hell on earth,” one Polish priest could maintain the virtues of faith, hope and love. As a strong Roman Catholic, I find Father Kolbe’s story to be inspirational evidence that no amount of darkness can snuff out God’s light.
To learn more about Saint Maximilian Kolbe, visit: