Song Amidst Sorrow
Ten men stand gathered in prayer. Maximilian Kolbe leads the group and begins to sing. The men join him in song, and their praises echo from within Cell 18 of Block 11. The men are shut in an underground bunker in Auschwitz, sentenced to die because of a prisoner escape. And yet, in the midst of this great darkness, the men were singing. Their leader, Kolbe, chose to be there. One of the men chosen to die had been Franciszek Gajowniczek, a Polish army sergeant. But Gajowniczek began to cry out, “My wife! My children!” Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward courageously, saying, “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.” And so after two weeks in the bunker, watching the men around him die, continuing to pray and sing, Maximilian Kolbe–instead of Franciszek Gajowniczek–died from a lethal injection of carbolic acid.
Maximilian Kolbe was born Raymund Kolbe on January 8, 1894 in Zdunska Wola, Poland. At a young age, Kolbe had a vision of the Blessed Mother offering him two crowns–one white and one red–for perseverance in purity and for martyrdom. Kolbe asked to receive both crowns.
The vision ignited within Kolbe a desire to serve Christ. At 13 years old, Kolbe left to attend the Conventual Franciscan Seminary in Lwow. He took the religious name Maximilian in 1910. He was ordained a priest and returned to Poland in 1919.
Kolbe taught the faith through radio broadcasts and publications. His monastery near Warsaw gave shelter to Jews during the Second World War. After his monastery published a series of anti-Nazi pamphlets, Kolbe was arrested and sent to Auschwitz on February 17, 1941, for hiding Jews.
In July 1941, one of the Nazi commanders found that some prisoners had escaped. He ordered the execution of ten men. When Maximilian Kolbe courageously volunteered to take the place of Franciszek Gajowniczek, the switch was allowed.
After two weeks, the guards came in with a lethal injection of carbolic acid. They needed to clear the cell to make room for additional executees. Kolbe calmly accepted his death, never ceasing his prayers for the men that were persecuting him.
Franciszek Gajowniczek was reunited with his wife in 1946, but his two sons died in the war. He attended Maximilian Kolbe’s canonization in 1981 and survived to the age of 93. Each year on August 14, he returned to Auschwitz, honoring the man who gave his life to save him.
St. Maximilian Kolbe and I
There are some saints that chose us, rather than us choosing them. I first remember hearing of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the saint with both the crown of martyrdom and the crown of heroic virtue, when I was in middle school. His story, that of a priest in a concentration camp that gave his life to save another, has stuck with me ever since.
For nearly two years now, St. Maximilian Kolbe has held a special place in my heart. Upon learning that I was pregnant, Maximilian Kolbe became one of my patrons as I asked for a healthy pregnancy, safe delivery, and healthy baby.
Madeleine’s middle name was originally going to be Cecilia. Neither Nicholas nor I felt strongly attached to the name. When we discovered we were having a girl, Nicholas and I knew that her middle name needed to change. There needed to be some connection to Maximilian Kolbe.
Nicholas suggested “Kolbe” as her middle name, but I felt it was too masculine. For a week or so, we prayed and struggled to find alternatives with a tie to St. Maximilian. Finally, we went to Mass.
During Mass, Nicholas turned to me and asked, “What about Immaculata?” It was perfect. Not only was it a tie to St. Maximilian Kolbe through the Militia Immaculata he founded, but also it was a tie to the Blessed Mother and a nod to me, as my birthday is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
He has been her patron ever since.
I first became fascinated by St. Maximilian Kolbe after a trip to Poland in 2015. There was no time to visit Auschwitz, but I saw multiple mentions of him throughout the trip. His courage and selflessness impressed upon my heart the great value that is a human life. Upon my return, I made him the subject of one of my creative writing assignments.
Maximilian Kolbe continued to pop up in various ways. I was working on an application to Dynamic Catholic in 2016. The topic I was assigned for my sample writing assignments? St. Maximilian Kolbe.
Last week, I began setting up my classroom. I looked at the saint outside my door, the saint designated as my classroom patron: St. Maximilian Kolbe, Patron Saint of Journalists.
I very nearly cried.
Just today, Nicholas informed me that St. Maximilian Kolbe’s birthday is January 8th. I was baptized on January 8th. Clearly, I am meant to have a connection with this saint.
This year, in all of my classes, we will be beginning class with prayers written by or asking the intercession of St. Maximilian Kolbe. He is a saint that demonstrates that there is light amidst darkness, hope amidst despair, love amidst great evil. And that is the sort of saint that many of us need in our lives to continue to hope when all else seems stacked against us.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, Pray for Us
St. Maximilian Kolbe, we ask you to help us to grow in selflessness and generosity. Inspire us to sacrifice ourselves and our desires for the good of others. Help us to remain joyful even in the midst of great darkness and suffering, and to pray especially for those that have wounded us.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, you were willing to give your life to save the life of another. Help us to more deeply recognize the sacredness and infinite value of each human life. Grant that through your prayers, all families, prisoners, and drug addicts may find joy and peace in Christ.
If you would like to read more about St. Maximilian Kolbe, you can find a creative piece I wrote on him here.