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80 years ago friar Maksymilian Kolbe gave his life for another Auschwitz inmate

Poland commemorates Franciscan Maksymilian Kolbe who, 80 years ago, selflessly offered to die instead of Franciszek Gajowniczek, another inmate, in a starvation cell in German extermination camp Auschwitz.

Franciscan Mirosław Kopczewski of the Niepokalanów monastery, an edifice established by Maksymilian Kolbe, told Informational Radio Agency (IAR) that Saint Maksymilian was an apostle of Christianity who preached the gospel in Poland and Japan. Apart from establishing the Niepokalanów monastery, he also edited the “Knight of the Immaculate Lady” (“Rycerz Niepokalanej”) and the “Little Daily” (“Mały Dziennik”). He was the reviver of the Franciscan spirit in the 20th century, a man characterised by pious love for the Mother of God.

Commemorating Father Maksymilian

A solemn ceremony on the 80th anniversary of the saint’s death is held on Saturday at the Maksymilian Kolbe Centre in Harmęże, southern Poland. Due to the pandemic conditions, the yearly pilgrimage to Auschwitz — the German extermination camp — and the holy mass at the memorial thereat was waived.

A Franciscan order delegation comprising Polish and Italian representatives will lay flowers at the foot of the Death Wall in Auschwitz. The gathered will stop at the camp square where Saint Maksymilian Kolbe declared he would die instead of Franciszek Gajowniczek.

Giving his life away for another

Franciscan Maksymilian Maria Kolbe, born on Jan 8, 1894, was sent to Auschwitz on May 28, 1941. Initially, he worked on collecting gravel for the construction of a fence near the crematorium, then joined the team tasked with building a fence around a nearby pasture.

At the end of July 1941, a prisoner, Zygmunt Pilawski, fled from the camp. As a punishment, the camp’s deputy commandant, Karl Fritzsch, chose ten prisoners and sentenced them to death by starvation. Among them was Franciszek Gajowniczek.

“The unhappy fate fell upon me. With the words ‘Ah, I feel sorry for my wife and children who I am orphaning,’ I went to the end of the block. I was about to go to death row. Father Maksymilian heard these words. He stepped out of the ranks, approached Fritzsch and tried to kiss his hand. He expressed the will to go to death for me,” Mr Gajowniczek said in 1946, describing the friar’s heroic attitude.

Father Kolbe was still alive after two weeks of torment. On August 14, 1941, he was killed by a German prisoner, Hans Bock, who injected him with a lethal phenol.

Franciszek Gajowniczek survived the war. He died in 1995 at the age of 94.

Maximilian Kolbe was beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1971 and canonised by John Paul II eleven years later. He became the first Polish martyr during WWII to be raised to the altars.

The Germans established the Auschwitz camp in 1940, initially for the imprisonment of Poles. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was established two years later. It became the site of the mass extermination of Jews. There was also a network of sub-camps in the complex. The Germans killed at least 1.1 million people at Auschwitz, mainly Jews, but also Poles, Roma and Soviet prisoners of war.

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