Chapter 6: The Martyrdom of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe (1941), by Manas Ranjan James

Martyrs in the History of Christianity
by Franklyn J. Balasundaram (ed.)

Chapter 6: The Martyrdom of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe (1941), by Manas Ranjan James


The unique characteristics of Maximilian Kolbe is that he deliberately offered himself up to death, to die in the place of another person in the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz. Another thing is that in the twentieth century the cause of death is changed or shifted. Persons became martyrs because they had a concern for human beings.

Historical Background

The Present

Poland is the largest of the West Slavic states, it exercised a marked influence in the past on the history of Eastern Europe. The Polish state occupied an area of 120,359 square miles. It had a mixed population of Poles, Germans, Liberians, Ukrainians, Russians and White Russians. But, after the formation of the Polish Republic in 1965, the inhabitants today are overwhelmingly of Polish origin. Poland’s census during the twentieth century indicates that the Roman Catholics comprised 75% of the population, the Orthodox and Jews 10% each and Protestants 3%. Moreover due to the large percentage of Catholics, Catholicism is acknowledged as the religion of the Polish population. Furthermore, Catholicism constituted the strongest effective spiritual force in all that is regarded as characteristic of Polish life and culture.

The Past

First of all, the Polish Catholics came under the Russian rule. The oppression of the Poles and of the Catholics was especially severe. During this time the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical administration was reduced to a condition of severe dependence under the Russian rule. Cooperation with the Church was based purely on considerations of public policy and also the Government refused to give official approval to the Episcopal candidates. When the Poles rose in revolution against the Russian terror in 1863 -1864, they were crushed with much bloodshed. Almost all the monasteries and Catholic societies were abolished and processions outside the Churches and collection of donations were forbidden. Moreover the Russians introduced their language in divine worship and punished numerous bishops and clerics who opposed the new regulation.

Secondly, the Poles came under the Austrian rule during the early part of the nineteenth century. Though it was ruled by Austria but, during this period it was given autonomy, especially in the area of education, that is, education at all levels was conducted in Polish. Even the Poles enjoyed religious freedom to some extent, that is, bishops were active as ecclesiastical statesmen.

During the middle of the nineteenth century Poland came under the German rule. In the beginning, Poland enjoyed religious freedom. "The numerous pilgrimages to the shrines of the Blessed Virgin at Czestochowa, Piekany and Ostra Brama in Vilna and the increasing participation in the foreign missions and in religious congresses bore witness to the flourishing religious life". (John P. Whalen, New Catholic Encyclopedia, "Maximilian Kolbe" [Poland], New York: Mcgraw-Hill Book Company, 1967, Vol. II, p. 481.) Examples of flourishing religious life can be seen in the following:

a) The Church intensified the care of souls by the multiplication of parishes, by the development of its social work and providing charity and introducing adult education programs.

b) The religious orders also exhibited marked zeal in the field of the Catholic press, that is, they published more than 250 Catholic periodicals. Every diocese had its own Sunday paper. This scholarly activity was reflected in a series of important theological journals.

"Until the end of World War I Polish Catholicism led a different kind of existence in the eastern province of Prussia, in the Russian vistula area and in Austrian Galicia, but within two decades an abrupt standardization was put into effect. The German-Soviet pact and the German-Polish campaign of September 1939 created a new political situation for the Church, the result of which was the incorporation of the eastern Polish territory into the Soviet Union which entailed the prohibition of religious propaganda, persecutions and deportations of clergy and laity." (Ibid., p. 481.)

After that Poland came under the National Socialist Regime and the German Nationalist Socialist Regime seized the territory of the ecclesiastical province and established a General Government that included the main part of the ecclesiastical provinces. Then the German authorities started to harass the people and the first step they took was the persecution of the Jews by which they threatened the Church.

In the Warta district members of the hierarchy were brutally beaten, the clergy were decimated in a frightful manner, seminars, numerous establishments of religious orders and all Catholic schools and associations were abolished, ecclesiastical property was expropriated, sisters were driven-from their convents, churches in large part were closed, wayside crosses and shrines were destroyed, Polish inscriptions on gravestones were effaced and loyalty to religion was made extremely difficult and was ridiculed in every conceivable manner and more than three million Polish Catholics were left completely outside the pale of the law and were at the mercy of the despotic whims of the National Socialists.

The Archbishop of Cracow, named Adam Sapieha, served as a spokesman for all the Polish bishops and made repeated representations to the administration of the General Government in order to obtain alleviations. But the German officials did not pay any attention to it. On the other hand their anti ecclesiastical attack paralyzed Catholic life and widely destroyed it.

Moreover the Polish bishops and priests were exiled or arrested and put in concentration camps. Among them was Maximilian Kolbe, a priest. He offered his life in substitution for that of a father of a family who had been condemned to die in the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz.

His Life History

Maximilian Kolbe whose real name was Raymond came from Zdienskawala in Poland. He was born on January 08,1894, into a humble family. At sixteen he chose to become a Franciscan. "Very soon his life took an extraordinary turn. With very reduced financial means, but with a simple faith and the overflowing energy of a man of action and an peerless organizer, he started a publishing network which circulated books by the million". (Bruno Chenu,, The book of Christian Martyrs, Maximilian Kolbe", London: SCM, 1988, pp. 168-171.)

One example will indicate the extent of his amazing creative capacity. In 1930 he left for Japan and it is here in little less than a month he created and published a Japanese edition of the Journal. The first printing was ten thousand copies and it was published in Nagasaki.

He returned to Europe in 1936. Well known in Poland, he was arrested for the first time during the German offensive of 1939 and sent to the concentration camp. Then he was freed but once again he was arrested for the second time on February 17, 1941, and was deported to Auschwitz. He arrived there on May 28, 1941, and it was here that he met with his death. Even though he lived for 47 years we do not have enough material to substantiate it.

Francis’ Version of Martyrdom

"The story goes: A prisoner had succeeded in escaping. How, will always remain a mystery, for the surveillance was such as to discourage any attempt at escape. The news made us fear the worst. We all knew the custom of the camps: for each escape ten of his companions had to die of hunger in a camp cellar. I remember that day minute by minute, without knowing the exact date, because at Auschwitz there was no calendar and we had lost all sense of time. I think it was at the beginning of August. That evening, one of us did not reply to the roll-call. The alarm was raised immediately, and in Block 14 we were kept under guard for three hours. Then we were left alone, but by way of punishment we were deprived of food, and our rations were thrown into a nearby gutter. But that was only a beginning. The next day, after roll-call, instead of being sent to work we were made to stand in the yard until three in the afternoon. The sun was very strong and many of us fainted, collapsing one after another. Finally we were given something to eat and we continued to wait, still standing until evening. The drama erupted after the evening roll-call. Colonel Fritsch, the Camp Commandant accompanied by Officer Palitsch, brought me to attention. I remember his words very clearly: The prisoner who escaped yesterday has not been found. Ten of you will die. Then he walked in front of us, looking at us one after another and from time to time shouting out a number. When he stopped in front of me, I realized that my fate was settled. He simply said ‘5659’. I was in the same file as Maximilian. I was the last or one of the last to be designated. It was the final good-bye. One of the ten cried out, farewell, friends, we shall see you where true justice reigns. Another found strength to say, long live Poland, I am dying for my country. My thoughts flew to Helen, my wife, and my two children. I cried, I think I said, I am sorry for them: I shall never see them again. But I do not remember the exact words."

Several seconds passed. It all seemed over when a number ‘116670’ suddenly broke ranks. His head was slightly bent; spectacles gave him a lively and penetrating look He had a strong smile. He stood before the Camp Commandant at attention and identified himself. I heard a conversation in German. Later I learned from Dr. Viodarki, who was standing nearby, the content of the conversation. What does this Polish pig want asked Fritsch, very angry. Kolbe replied, "I am a fairly old Catholic priest and I would like to take his place, and the finger was pointed in my direction. He has a wife and children". Stupefied, the Commandant could only reply, "here’s a crazy priest." And he simply added, "alright".

I was put back into my place without having had time to say anything to Maxmilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this. The news quickly spread all round the camp. It was the first and the last time that such an incident happened in the whole history of Auschwitz.

Speaking of his savior, D’Xy concluded. "For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of Maxmilian. By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant. But now, on reflection, I understood that a man like him could not have done otherwise. Besides, he did it freely. Perhaps he thought that as a priest his place was beside the condemned man to help them keep hope. In fact he was with them to the last."

Francis has lived with his wife Helen in their little house in Crzeb, where a picture of Maxmilian Kolbe has a place of honor. Their two children died young during the war. A niece with heart problems has taken their place. Helen says ‘we only live by memories’. (Ibid., pp. 168-170.)

The Manner of his Death

The way Maxmilian Kolbe met death is also a personal testimony given by Bruno Borgowiec, who told it to his parish priest before he died in 1947. He narrates the incident:

"The ten condemned to death went through terrible days. From the underground cell in which they were shut up there continually arose the echo of prayers and canticles. As the days went by, the number of survivors lessened. The man in-charge of emptying the buckets of urine found them always empty. Thirst drove the prisoners to drink the contents. Father Kolbe never asked for anything and did not complain, rather he encouraged the others, saying that the fugitive might be found and then they would all be freed. He was always on his knees or sitting, propped up against the wall. One of the guards remarked, this priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him’.

On August 14, the eve of the Feast of the Assumption, four prisoners were still alive but only Father Kolbe could speak. The cell had to be used for other prisoners; a German gave each of them an injection and they died immediately. Fr. Kolbe was the last: Borgowiec saw him propped up against the wall, eyes open, face serene, head inclined to the left, the death certificate, as always made out with precision indicates the hour of death 12.30." (Ibid., p. 170.)


What categorically distinguishes the life of Maxmilian Kolbe from others is the way he decided to die on behalf of some one else so that person may be able to live. All the events are not necessarily fact and experience. Few events can only be viewed as facts as they do not influence or may not make any impact on people to experience. Few events can only be viewed as experience as it may be proved substantially.

But this event has both fact and experience. If only a fact it may not affect us much because it may be one among many other facts of life in the universe. It might be a divine fact affecting divine life vertically between God and a few without affecting others very much. It may be a human fact which does not seem to make an impact upon others but the determination to die on behalf of others is seen in the life of Kolbe. It is both a divine and human fact and besides that an experience available for any one of us that is different altogether. Thus it became an event in which our life and hope and destiny are at stake.

It is a human fact because it expressed the real responsibility for others in the history of martyrdom.

It is a divine fact because it portrayed the supreme and selfless love offered by Jesus Christ who was an embodiment of God’s love.

Another that we see from the life of Maxmilian Kolbe is his bright future and the example we get from this is his amazing creativity but yet he did not care for his future but looked ahead for the future of others.


The greatest lesson that we learn from the life of Maxmilian Kolbe is to decide for whom we are called upon to live and die for. This context raises an important question -- what determines my being a Christian? The lesson demands from us a solid answer, our being a Christian may not be and cannot be constituted by any of our religious relationships to God but by our social involvement, a new life in our being there only for others, in participating in the being of Jesus.



Chenu, Bruno,, The Book of Christian Martyrs, London: SCM Press, 1988, pp. 168-171.

Whalen, John P. New Catholic Encyclopedia, "Maxmilian Kolbe (Poland)", New York: Mcgraw-Hill Book Company, 1967, Vol. II, pp. 479-483.