Father Maximilian Kolbe and World War II – trading one life for another

I have been blessed with the opportunity to travel to the nation of Poland with outstanding mission teams in the last two years. Our trips always begin and end in the capital city of Warsaw. 

Peter, David, Me, David, Bryan in Warsaw

Warsaw has grown to be a very important westernized city, though much of it is plain and far from unique. In many areas the city reeks of communism – buildings are replicated from one block to the next and the most common type of aestheticism is concrete covered with graffiti.

“Old Town,” Warsaw, however, is a different story. Its buildings, royal quarters, and churches represent the intrinsic beauty of the Polish people dating all the way back to the 14th century. Nearly everywhere a person walks in Old Town, he or she will encounter the marks and scars of the Second World War. The Polish people in Warsaw fought against German occupation to the very end, but a combination of Nazi ferocity and unfulfilled promises by the Red Army led to a crushing defeat. It is estimated that 85-90% of the city of Warsaw was razed by the time the war ended.

Sadly, Warsaw is only one piece of the story . . . 

“Old Town” Warsaw Destroyed in WWII
The same shot of Market Square in “Old Town” Warsaw today


The most horrific tales of Nazi cruelty are usually associated with victims from central and Eastern Europe. In reality, the entire continent of Europe suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime. It is believed that some 6 million Jewish people, or around 2/3 of the Jews in Europe, died as a result of the Holocaust. Millions of others, including more than 1 million Roma peoples were also exterminated during the final years of the war.

It was in Poland that what Adolf Hitler allegedly called “final solution to the Jewish question” was executed under the guidance of Nazi leaders such as Heinrich Himmler. Throughout occupied regions of the Polish lands, concentration camps which included both labor camps and extermination camps were facilitated. Millions of Jews, Roma, Christians, Soviet POWs, and other supposed enemies of Nazism were brought in by the trainloads and busloads to face imprisonment, torture, and death.

The Entrance to Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, by train

The largest of the Nazi concentration camps was known as Auschwitz, named after the city of Oświęcim in the southern part of Poland near Kraków. Auschwitz was made of three separate camps conjoined into a network. The second camp in the group, also known as Birkenau, was chosen by the Third Reich as the key location to carry out the “final solution.” From 1942-1944, trains full of men, women, and children who were considered enemies of the Nazi were brought to Birkenau to face execution. Most were killed in the gas chambers, but others faced a variety of other menacing forms of death. Estimates vary as to how many people actually died as a result of the horrors perpetrated at the Auschwitz camps during this period. In all likelihood, though, the number is somewhere between 1 and 3 million – the vast majority of these being Jewish people.


Several tales of heroism and sacrifice at Auschwitz have emerged in the last half century. The story of Maximilian Kolbe (AD 1894-1941) is one of the most inspirational.

Kolbe was a Franciscan priest from Poland who was imprisoned in Auschwitz on May 29, 1941 for publishing anti-Nazi literature. While he only survived the camp for a few months, his impact on the prisoners and their suffering within was exceptional. Father Kolbe made it his goal to lift the spirits of his fellow prisoners with words of kindness, encouragement, and hope. He is remembered as often going without food until he was sure every other person had eaten. His demeanor always seemed positive, peaceful, and prayerful. Despite the terrible darkness and suffering around him, Kolbe never lost sight of his calling.

Less than two months after his arrival, however, a tragic incident occurred. At the end of each day, the SS guards would perform a roll call to account for all prisoners. At the end of one July day, the guards noticed a prisoner was missing. Believing the prisoner had escaped, the guards enacted what had become the common punishment for dealing with an escapee. They would line up a large number of people from the camp and choose 10-15 from among them to be taken to the subterranean cells where they would not be allowed food or water until the escapee was found or the prisoners in the dungeon all died. Most versions of this story claim that the man who was believed to have escaped was actually found in a latrine, the victim of drowning. Nevertheless, some fifteen prisoners were chosen and sentenced to the dungeons for starvation.

One of the prisoners who was chosen, a Polish man named Franciszek Gajcwniczek, was a husband and father. When the SS commander chose him, Gajcwniczek cried out: “My poor wife and children! What’s going to happen to my family?” It was then that Kolbe stepped forward and showed the true depth of his faith and commitment to the teachings of Jesus. He laid down his life for his neighbor.

The following account comes from Dr. Franz Wiodarski, a Polish man who was lined up and yet not selected on that July day in Auschwitz:

After the fifteen prisoners had been selected, Maximilian Kolbe broke ranks, took his cap off, and stood at attention before the SS camp leader, who turned to him in surprise: “What does this Polish swine want?”

Kolbe pointed at Gajowniczek, who was destined for death, and replied: “I am a Catholic priest from Poland. He has a wife and children, and therefore I want to take his place.”

The SS camp leader was so astonished that he could not speak. After a moment he gave a hand signal and spoke only one word: “Weg!” (Away!). This is how Kolbe took the place of the doomed man, and Gajowniczek was ordered to rejoin the lineup.

From People in Auschwitz (2003) by Hermann Langbein, pg 241.

Kolbe was starved in the dungeon cells for around two weeks. In ways reminiscent of the Paul and Silas in Acts 16,  it is believed that Kolbe continually led the dungeon prisoners in prayers and songs. Even the SS guards who worked in the cells were impressed by the selflessness and joy that characterized the priest. After most of the other prisoners had died of starvation or sickness, the guards decided to execute those still alive with a lethal injection. Kolbe was among them.

Franciszek Gajcwniczek, the man whose life he saved by offering himself as a replacement, survived the horrors of Auschwitz and eventually returned to his remaining family members.

Among the things Kolbe had written against the rise of fascism throughout Europe was this powerful statement: “Hatred is not creative. Our sorrow is necessary so that those who live after us will be happy.”


Kolbe was born on January 8, 1894 in Zdunska Wola, Poland. At his baptism, his parents gave him the name Ramond Kolbe. He chose the religious name Maximilian open entering the Franciscan Order on September 4, 1910. He was ordained as a priest in Rome on April 28, 1918.

Kolbe was a unique kind of priest among Catholics. In a somewhat Jesuit style, he had an evangelistic fervor. He used several forms of media and mass production to circulate the message of Christ among the Polish people. In 1922, he began the publication “Knight of the Immaculate” which eventually circulated over one million issues before the war caused publications to cease. Between world wars, Kolbe was instrumental in founding Franciscan friaries and evangelistic hubs in Warsaw and Nagasaki, Japan. He spent 6 years (1930-36) in Japan helping to establish the mission work there.

During WWII, Kolbe helped to harbor and protect more than 1,500 Jewish refugees. It is believed that he even provided them with resources to celebrate the Jewish religious feasts. During this time he used his writing skills and printing resources to publish several different works exposing the evils of Nazism and the German occupation of central Europe.

On February 17, 1941, Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo as a result of the circulation of his article entitled “Truth.” He was imprisoned in Warsaw for a short time before being carried off to Auschwitz on May 28, 1941. As mentioned above, Kolbe died in July of 1941 by lethal injection in the camp’s underground cell chamber. He was beatified by Pope Paul VI on October 17, 1971, and canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 10, 1982. John Paul II gave them the title, “Martyr of Charity.”

-This biography is adapted from, among other sources, the New Catholic Encyclopedia.


The Entrance to Auschwitz – “Work Makes Free”

The largest of the Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz was actually made up  of three separate camps which together formed a network of sorts.

Auschwitz I was the base camp and the first to be occupied and utilized by the Nazis. The base camp eventually expanded to include the extermination camp Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau and Auschwitz III which was a labor camp. Early on, the prisoners who were brought to Auschwitz were given the false hope that if they worked hard they would be rewarded and eventually set free, just as the entrance sign promised. In the camp’s later years (it was liberated in early 1945) the auspices of work-rewarded freedom were gone. Most people were never even given the chance to work and taken straight to their deaths as a result of mass executions.

There is an excellent PBS essay by Dr. Doris Bergen on concentration camps, including Auschwitz, that can be found here: http://www.pbs.org/auschwitz/40-45/background/auschwitz.html. The segment on Auschwitz II from the essay is below:

The camp system continued to evolve as the Nazi net expanded. Auschwitz expanded to include Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II), where the gas chambers were located, and over one million Jews were murdered. The Auschwitz complex also included factories with slave labor from all over Europe; facilities for POWs of various kinds; concentration facilities that held many non-Jewish Poles and others; and a model village where the guards and their families lived in comfort, enriched by the goods plundered from their victims. Such an enormous camp system could not be concealed, and indeed, Nazi authorities intended knowledge and fear of camps such as Auschwitz to serve as a threat to potential opponents of their rule.

They did make some efforts to conceal their genocide of the Jews, but that turned out to be impossible. The stink of burning bodies surrounded camps such as Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. And all of the camps, including death camps, depended on workers from Germany and the surrounding areas—secretaries, tradesmen, railroad workers, as well as guards and administrators—so that many people witnessed what was taking place.

2 thoughts on “Father Maximilian Kolbe and World War II – trading one life for another

  1. As a 19, 20 and 21-year-old in Italy from the end of 1943 through ’44 and ’45, I heard almost daily about the horrors going on north of us. I well remember when our soldiers went into Germany and East, releasing the survivors of Auschwitz. Thank you so much, Eric, for being a very young man of education through whom God is not going to let America forget.

    Love and respect this quote from Kolbe: “Hatred is not creative. Our sorrow is necessary so that those who live after us will be happy.”

    Hope to see you Wednesday,


  2. Wow! Excellent article. I enjoyed the story of Kolbe. I told you I would read your blog. I read the St. Nick story and this one … still more to go. Two great and informative articles already!

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