Mark the name, Maximilian Maria Kolbe. Have you heard of him? Mark the name:
he’s worth remembering.
The world has just marked the death of Shane Keith Warne, Australian cricketer of fame and legend and now, in death, memorialised, his name on an MCG stand and to be remembered and celebrated for … a hundred years at least. Prematurely gone, only 52, now feted by Michael Jordan, Ed Sheeran, Liz Hurley, Alan Border, Elton John and many other celebrities, his memorial service beamed around the world, hyperbolically accoladed and lionised.
No one would say his honouring was undeserved [although, was it?]. Awesome spin bowler, personality larger than life, and latterly famous for being famous. Everyone loved Warnie.
Kolbe’s death was utterly unaccoladed. He died of starvation, thirst and carbolic acid, aged 47, in an Auschwitz cellar.
What makes his death remarkable is that he died voluntarily in the place of another man.
Kolbe was a Catholic priest, Polish. In May 1941 he and four others were taken to Auschwitz, where they, along with other prisoners, were slowly and systematically starved.
In order to discourage escapes, Auschwitz had a rule that if a man escaped, ten men would be killed in retaliation. In July 1941 a man from Kolbe’s hut ‘escaped’. [The dreadful irony of the story is that the escaped prisoner hadn’t, but was later found drowned in a camp latrine.]
“The fugitive has not been found!” commandant Karl Fritsch screamed. “You will all pay for this. Ten of you will be locked in the starvation bunker without food or water until you die.”
The ten were selected, including Franciszek Gajowniczek. On hearing his name he cried out in anguish. “My poor wife! My poor children! What will they do?” When he heard this cry of dismay, Kolbe stepped silently forward, took off his cap, stood before the commandant and said, “I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. He has a wife and children.”
Others looked on in horror, expecting the commandant would be angered, and would order the death of both men. He remained silent, however … before granting the request. Gajowniczek was returned to the ranks, and the priest took his place.
We know the story because Gajowniczek survived the war and told it. He recalled: “I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me – a stranger. Is this some dream?”
Kolbe was thrown down the stairs of Building 13 along with the other victims and simply left there to starve.
For the next long days he encouraged the others with prayer, psalms, and meditations on the Scriptures. After two weeks, he was one of only four still alive. The cell was needed for more victims, and the camp executioner came in and injected a lethal dose of carbolic acid into the arm of each man.
His wait was over …
Apparently Kolbe’s heroism echoed through Auschwitz. Another survivor Jozef Stemler later recalled: “In the midst of such brutalization … never before known, into this state of affairs came the heroic self-sacrifice of Father Kolbe.” Another survivor Jerzy Bielecki described Kolbe’s death as “a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength … It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp.”
Shane Warne was a wonderful cricketer, gone too soon.
But Maximilian Kolbe gave his life for a stranger; his name truly deserving of honour and memory.
One thought on “Worthy of Memory”
Oh Ken, what a moving account of Father Kolbe. Thanks for reminding us of what true heroism is. How preoccupied we can become with the shallow celebrity culture that is so breathlessly thrust upon us.