St Maximilian Kolbe
For millions the bleak image of the gates of the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau have come to symbolize an age of genocide. The commemoration of one Christian man who died there, in light of the destruction of six million Jewish lives between 1941-1945, may give us reason to hesitate. But Maximilian Kolbe, who died as prisoner 16770 in Auschwitz-Birkenau, is much remembered in the Christian Church. He offered his own life to save a fellow prisoner, Franciszek Gajowniczek, condemned to death by the camp authorities after a successful escape by a fellow prisoner.
Kolbe was born on 8th January 1894 in Zdunska Wola. His parents were devout and nationalistic. At the age of eighteen he went to Rome to study philosophy and theology. In October 1917 he and six other students formed a new body, Militia Immaculatae, which promoted devotion to the Virgin Mary, worked to secure converts and to perform good works.
Kolbe returned to Poland to lecture at the Fransciscan seminary at Kracow. In October 1927 Prince Jan Drucki-Lubecki gave to the movement a plot of land near Warsaw to develop their work: this became Niepokalanow, the city of the Immaculatae. Here the community flourished, publishing prolifically, and soon its influence spread across Poland. Its journal was not uncontroversial. A number of issues contained antisemitic articles, but they were not written by Kolbe himself, and he was known to censure the other editors for such work.
In 1930 Kolbe travelled with four of his brothers to Japan, to Nagasaki. There they bought a second plot of land, formerly a cemetery for untouchables. They built a house there and published another journal, provoking curiosity and interest in the city.
Six years later Kolbe returned again to Poland. By now Niepokalanow was producing nine journals with huge print runs. Kolbe viewed it not as a business, but as "a modern workshop of the improvement of man". When war broke out, he sent his brothers away, but remained there himself. He was soon interned. He resisted pressure to apply for release, but was for a time free. He was detained again. At Auschwitz he was known discreetly to give his own food to other prisoners, even as his own health crumbled, to hear confessions and, in the face of stern prohibitions, to celebrate mass. It was late in July 1941 that a prisoner in his own block escaped, and now Kolbe stepped forward to make his sacrifice.
In the starvation cell six of the ten who had been selected died within two weeks. Kolbe was still fully conscious when, on the eve of the Assumption of Mary, 14th August 1941, he was killed by lethal injection.
'I want to die in place of this prisoner.'
The cell where he died is now a shrine. Maximilian Kolbe was beatified as Confessor by Paul VI in 1970, and canonized as Martyr by Pope John Paul II in 1982. His image may be found in churches across Europe.
A service to mark his 125th anniversary was held in the Abbey on 13th January 2019.
Modern Martyrs of the 20th century
St Maximilian Kolbe is one of the ten Modern Martyrs of the 20th century. They were unveiled in 1998 above the west door of the Abbey. The statue was carved by Andrew Tanser.
The Terrible Alternative. Christian Martyrdom in the Twentieth Century edited by Andrew Chandler, 1998 (chapters on all the martyrs)
Universal History Archive/UIG / Bridgeman Images
This image can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library
Image © 2023 Dean and Chapter of Westminster