5 Facts About St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Man Who Died For a Stranger at Auschwitz

Friday marks the anniversary of Saint Maximillian Kolbe's death. It's been 79 years since the Franciscan Friar was killed after offering his life in place for another man at Auschwitz.

14 August 1941 | Saint ft. Maximilian #Kolbe OFM was killed with a phenol injection inside a starvation cell of Block 11 of the German #Auschwitz I camp. On 29 July 1941 he offered his life to save a person selected for starvation death after an escape of a prisoner. pic.twitter.com/HPPdNQHOkL

— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) August 14, 2020

Kolbe was first arrested in 1939 by Nazis invading Poland. Three months after his second arrest in 1941, Kolbe made his fateful sacrifice.

According to the Auschwitz Memorial, Kolbe had heard a man pleading with SS guards to let him live, after being sentenced to death by starvation. The man said that he had a wife and children for whom he wanted to live. Kolbe heard the man and asked the guard if he could go instead. After two weeks, a few people in the cell were still alive and sentenced to lethal injection.

Since his death in 1941, Kolbe has been honored a number of times by the Catholic Church.

Connection to the Virgin Mary

According to Franciscan Media, Kolbe had a strong connection to the Virgin Mary. He claimed to have a vision of the Catholic Church's most important woman. "I prayed very hard to Our Lady to tell me what would happen to me. She appeared, holding in her hands two crowns, one white, one red. She asked if I would like to have them—one was for purity, the other for martyrdom. I said, 'I choose both.' She smiled and disappeared," he once wrote. His death also falls one day before the feast day of the Assumption of Mary, a holy day of obligation for Catholics. The feast celebrates when the Virgin Mary was taken to heaven.

Knight of the Immaculata

According to The Washington Post, Kolbe founded the magazine Knight of the Immaculata. The magazine's contents have led some to accuse Kolbe of antisemitism. He called Freemasons "an organized clique of fanatical Jews who want to destroy the church" in the magazine's first issue in 1926. Other accounts published in the magazine suggest he may have been more moderate and was not as prejudiced against Jews as his early writings appear. The Times reported that upon his canonization, the church said that the Friars' belief that he "reflect[ed] some bias that was characteristic of the country and the times."

In 1982, Gajowniczek spoke out against the anti semitism accusations against Kolbe. "He has also said that he has no doubt that whether it was a Gentile or a Jew, Kolbe would have saved his life," Rev. James McCurry, a friar who had spoken to Gajowniczek told The Post.

Led The Other Prisoners Sentenced to Starvation in Prayer

By many accounts of Kolbe's time in the "hunger bunker," the Friar sang hymns and said prayers with the other men he was sentenced to death with. After about two weeks, Kolbe and the remaining prisoners were given the injection.

Became a Saint in 1982

According to The New York Times, Kolbe was canonized as a saint by Pope John Paul II. The pope remembered Kolbe's sacrifice while also noting the many Jews who have made the same sacrifice to protect others. "The tragic fate of so many Jews destroyed without pity in the concentration camps has already been condemned, firmly and irrevocably, by the conscience of humanity," he said. He is the patron saint of drug addicts, imprisoned people, journalists, the pro-life movement, and more.

The Man He Sacrificed for Lived to 94

Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man that Kolbe had stood in for, survived the Holocaust and died in Brzeg in 1995. Upon his death, The New York Times reported that Gajowniczek had spent over five years in Auschwitz and was never reunited with his sons, who were killed during a bombardment in 1945. Gajowniczek's widow said that the man "had a deep sense of Kolbe's presence and had a feeling Kolbe will know when to take him."

Maximilian Kolbe
Radio picture of Maximillian Kolbe, who was a Polish Conventual Franciscan friar who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in the Nazi German concentration camp of Auschwitz, located in German-occupied Poland during World War II. He is the patron saint of drug addicts, political prisoners, families, journalists, prisoners, and the pro-life movement. Getty/Michael Nicholson/Corbis