On August 5, I posted an article mostly about Jesse Owens, who remarkably won his fourth Olympic gold medal on August 9, 1936. This article is about Maximilian Kolbe, a man who died five years and five days later, on August 14, 1941.
At the Berlin Olympics in 1936 Owens was snubbed by Hitler because of his being of African descent. Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest, was killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp operated by Hitler’s Nazis.
Owens became known worldwide because of his athletic achievements before tens of thousands of people. Kolbe became known worldwide because of his sacrificial death witnessed by hardly anyone.
Maximilian Kolbe was born in January 1894 in what was then the Kingdom of Poland. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in April 1918, and the following year he began teaching in a seminary in Krakow.
Fr. Kolbe went to Japan as a missionary in 1930. The following year he founded a monastery and school in the suburbs of Nagasaki, and he also started publishing a Japanese edition of the periodical he had published in Poland.
By 1933 Seibo no Kishi (Knights of the Holy Mother) is said to have had a circulation of 50,000—and still today it is the leading Catholic monthly periodical in Japan.
On April 30 my blog article was titled “In Memory of Dr. Nagai.” Takashi Nagai was the doctor and medical school professor who suffered serious injuries in the Aug. 9, 1945, atomic bomb explosion over Nagasaki.
Dr. Nagai (1908-51) had been baptized in 1934. As a new Christian he met Fr. Kolbe a few times—and even treated him as a patient.
After being seriously injured by the atomic explosion, Dr. Nagai thought about Kolbe often. When it seemed as if Nagai was going to die, someone brought him water from the Lourdes grotto the Polish Catholic priest had built—and he began to recover miraculously and lived nearly six more years.
Because of his poor health, Kolbe returned to Poland in 1936. In February of 1941, he was arrested by the Nazi Gestapo for hiding Jewish people in his Polish monastery. Kolbe was soon sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp and branded prisoner #16670.
In late July, an inmate of Auschwitz escaped. To discourage others from trying to do likewise, the Nazi guards selected ten prisoners at random to die by starvation. One of the ten chosen was Franciszek Gajowniczek, who cried out for mercy because he had a wife and children.
Upon hearing Gajowniczek’s pitiful plea, Kolbe stepped up, identified himself as a Catholic priest, and volunteered to take his place. Somewhat surprisingly, the Nazi in charge agreed.
After nearly three weeks, Kolbe and three of the other nine were still alive, barely. To clear out the cell, the four were then given an injection to kill them in a matter of minutes. This was the terrible end of the life of Maximilian Kolbe—but his story has lived on.
Forty-one years later, in October 1982, Kolbe was canonized—and the ceremony in Rome was witnessed in person by Gajowniczek, who, amazingly, lived to be 94. When he was canonized by John Paul II, who was a Pole like Kolbe, the Pope proclaimed him as the “patron saint of the difficult 20th century.”
“Life for Life,” a 1991 movie about Maximilian Kolbe, closes with a still shot of Jesus’ words recorded in the Bible: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).