By Fr. Felix López, SHM
On August 14, 1941, St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe, Conventual Franciscan and Martyr of Charity, died in the concentration camp of Auschwitz. This year marks the 75th Anniversary of the heroic offering of his life, by taking the place of a fellow prisoner who was condemned to die of hunger. In the following article, we would like to summarize his life and apostolate, by concentrating on a few testimonies of those who lived with him during the last months of his life. These testimonies permit us to discover his greatness of soul, his heroic charity, and his unconditional love for the Immaculate, all of which were the source of the final oblation of his life.
Perhaps, one may be wondering: “What is the meaning of the Latin word in the title: Immaculatae?” It is a way to summarize with one word an entire life: of the Immaculate; belonging to Her. The entire life of St. Maximilian consisted of a “holy obsession”: to be able to belong totally to the Immaculate, living totally consecrated to Her, belonging to Her without reserve, without limits, desiring that this become a reality as soon as possible, with the aim of conquering as many souls as possible for the Immaculate.
Even while suffering with tuberculosis, St. Maximilian Mary was always enflamed with an apostolic zeal. He desired to found a city called Niepokalanow for Her: a city dedicated to loving the Immaculate and doing apostolate. There they had an editorial convent, where they printed the Knight of the Immaculate. The first community was founded in 1927, comprised of eighteen Brothers and two priests. What spirit did they desire to live with? In a letter written by Kolbe, it is clear: “The ideal of Niepokalanow is consecration to the Immaculate, without limits, conforming oneself with one’s will, to be the most perfect instrument possible in Her immaculate hands.”
Three years later, the Japanese version of Niepokalanow, called Mugenzai no Sono, opened. A few months later, the Knight, printed 10,000 issues in Japanese. The spirituality of Fr. Maximilian Mary became more evident: obedience as an adherence to the will of the Immaculate and poverty. “At times we were unable to eat in order to buy paper to print our magazine.” And again he summarizes his way of life, of belonging to the Immaculate: “Backbreaking work all day, working yourself to death, considered crazy by even our own members, and, exhausted, die for the Immaculate.” “We work, we suffer, and we desire to die for Her. Each one, without a doubt, should be willing to go to any place, at any moment, even to the end of the world, and even if it meant certain death.”
In 1936, his health declined. His superiors asked him to return to Poland. In July, he was again named guardian (superior) of Niepokalanow. In the midst of an intense apostolate, Kolbe deepened in his relationship with the Mother of God. “The one who loves, will know more about the Immaculate than a philosopher or theologian.” “Our love becomes more perfect in the measure that our will is identified with Her will.” “The greatest way to love the Immaculate is to let oneself be led by Her in everything through obedience.”
On September 1, 1939, Germans invaded Poland. On September 19th, Fr. Kolbe and his Brothers were arrested for the first time and later set free on December 8th. On February 17, 1941, Fr. Maximilian was arrested for a final time by the Gestapo and taken to the Pawiak prison in Warsaw. On May 28th, 1941, he was admitted to the concentration camp in Auschwitz. Upon arriving to the camp, he said, “We do not know what will become of us. Let us be prepared for anything that the Immaculate may want of us. Let us surrender ourselves completely to Her, so that she may guide us according to Her will.”
One of his companions, Wierzba, recounted how they had to suffer terrible hunger, the harsh cold when they had to sleep on the floor in tents during November, with snow and ice. “On many occasions,” he recalled, “we did not have water to drink, and we could not change our under garments for months. The insects and filth tortured us. The Servant of God (Kolbe) bore everything with serenity and joy, because that was how he could show his love for God. In the midst of such burdens he said, “A certain sadness invades even the fervent soul when he thinks how in Heaven he will not be able to suffer and show his love for God this way!’”
Kolbe wrote to his brothers: “God glady gives himself to the soul that has consecrated himself to Him. The ebb and flow of love is established between God and the soul. What unspeakable happiness! What a great grace it would be to seal with one’s life one’s personal ideal!” Sienkiewicz, a companion in the concentration camp, recounted how Fr. Maximilian celebrated Mass twice in the strictest secrecy. Thirty prisoners attended. All of them were able to receive Communion. He exhorted them to entrust themselves to God and the Most Blessed Virgin Mary.
He heard the confessions of all those who approached him. Dziuba confirmed that thanks to being able to go to confession with Fr. Kolbe, he was able to overcome the temptation to commit suicide. On June 12, 1941, Solemnity of Corpus Christi, he spoke to them about the Eucharist in a low voice. He encouraged them by reminding them that the good and omnipotent God permitted suffering to prepare them for a better life, and he exhorted them to persevere and be encouraged. He never spoke about himself or his sufferings. He was a meek and humble man. He always sought to remain hidden. He directed all conversations towards the Virgin Mary.
Szweda, another one of his companions, recounted how Krott, one of the Nazi officials, forced Fr. Kolbe to carry large and heavy pieces of wood on his back. Afterwards, he ordered him to run. When Fr. Kolbe fell to the ground out of exhaustion, he kicked him in the face and stomach, and beat him with a club. One day, during the midday break, among insults and blasphemies, he ordered him to sprawl out on a trunk and then ordered one of the strongest soldiers to beat him fifty times with a club. Fr. Kolbe was unable to move, as if dead. Then he was thrown into the mud. When someone showed pity for him because of the beating he was given, Kolbe responded that he was happy to suffer something for the Lord. He never showed hatred or anger for the Germans.
When one of the prisoners of the camp was able to escape, commander Frits commanded that ten prisoners should die of hunger as a punishment. Upon being selected, Francisco Gajowniczek shouted, pleading for mercy because he had a wife and children. Fr. Kolbe got out of line and offered to take his place in the death bunker. “I am a Catholic, Polish priest. I want to take his place because he has a wife and children.” Stemler confirmed that Fr. Kolbe’s sacrifice left a great impression in the hearts of all the prisoners. While some refused to give a fellow prisoner a piece of bread, Kolbe offered his life for a prisoner he did not even know.
Fr. Kolbe not only wanted to offer his life for another, he also wanted to accompany the other nine men in their last moments. He wanted to go down to the bunker of death with them, share in their agony, and give them hope and encouragement in such a terrible moment.
Witnesses confirmed that prayers and hymns of the prisoners could be heard from the bunker. Fr. Kolbe led the Rosary. As the days passed, their voices became weaker as a result of malnutrition and the lack of water. On August 14th, only four prisoners remained alive. They were exterminated by a lethal injection of carbolic acid. With a prayer on his lips, Fr. Kolbe offered his left arm to his murderer.
The desire he kept in his heart from his first Mass was fulfilled: Amorem usque ad victimam – love until made a victim.
St. Maximilian Mary wrote: “Oh, Immaculate, by Your mercy I have consecrated my life. I have worked for You, suffered for You, and now I die for You. I am Yours!" Without a doubt, She went looking for this good son of Hers that knew how to belong completely to Her, both in life and in death.
©HM Magazine; Nº191 July-August 2016