With deep faith and courageous hope, Saint Maximilian Kolbe endured the extreme horrors of Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi concentration camp in Poland. He proved that self-giving love and compassion can thrive even in extreme darkness and cruelty. His heroic life inspired other prisoners, giving them hope that kindness and self-sacrifice were possible—even in Auschwitz. This “factory of death” functioned from 1940 until 1945; studies demonstrate that between 1.1 and 1.5 million people perished there.
Heroic Love of Neighbor. Maximilian’s final act of Christian service came on July 30, 1941. Auschwitz had the rule that if anyone escaped from a cell-block, ten men would be consigned to an underground bunker and starved to death. One man from Kolbe’s Cell-block 14A went missing (later it was discovered that he had drowned). The commandant selected ten men to die. One of them, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out: “My poor wife and children! I will never see them again.” Father Kolbe volunteered to take his place. The commandant asked who he was. Kolbe replied: “I am a Catholic priest.” Kolbe’s offer was accepted.
All ten were thrown into the starvation bunker. To console them and ease their suffering, Kolbe led songs and prayers each day. After two weeks four remained alive. Needing the cell for more victims, the four were put to death by an injection of carbolic acid on August 14, 1941. Franciszek Gajowniczek survived and returned to his wife; he lived to be 95 years old, though his children had perished during the war. Pope John Paul II canonized Kolbe on October 10, 1982 in Saint Peter’s Square. Along with other Auschwitz survivors, Franciszek Gajowniczek, wearing his striped prison uniform, was present at the moving ceremony (as was this writer who was in Rome for studies).
Bearing Paschal Witness. Today, when one visits the Auschwitz concentration camp and goes to the underground starvation bunker, one sees the paschal candle prominently displayed in the middle of the cell. What a moving sight! The Easter candle, symbol of Christ’s own death and resurrection, touches the core of Christian faith—your faith, my faith, the faith of Father Kolbe. To pray (as did this writer in 2007) at the very site of the death chamber of Cell 18 where Kolbe manifested such profound self-giving inspires deep hope. The “Saint of Auschwitz” genuinely lived the Gospel: “A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13).
As already noted, the scene at the Auschwitz concentration camp places the paschal candle at the heart of life—with all its ugliness and yet with all its heroic Christian witness. Jesus’ missionary-disciples place the crucified-risen Jesus at the center of life—with all its joys and sorrows. Today on “Divine Mercy Sunday” and always, be a “paschal candle,” radiating the light of the risen Christ! Serve the needy poor and those in distress, giving without counting the cost.
James H. Kroeger, M.M.
Burn brightly in the darkest corners
of my heart, O Pascal Candle of new life!
shine with the glow and glory of sacrifice
that transforms wounds into healing,
sorrow into heavenly joy and
death into eternal peace and mercy!
O happy fault! O necessary sin of Adam
that drew down from highest heaven
so great a savior, redeemer and friend!
God grant me the courage to offer myself
for the happiness, healing and faith of all,
that the name of Jesus be praised and
the holy Gospel proclaimed in every
land by every tongue.
O Lord, enkindle in my repentant heart
the flame of devotion to your Reign
that the gates of hell collapse before
Your Word and peace and justice
Spring up where once evil, sin and darkness
ruled and ruined many souls.
May your mercy draw all the world
to your Sacred Heart now and evermore.
Prayer by Father Joe Veneroso, M
Photo: Maryknoll Sisters at Selma, March 7, 1965. (Photo courtesy of Maryknoll Mission Archives)