Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941)

Maximilian Kolbe, scupture by Andrew TanserOn Wednesdays in Lent we commemorated some of the Christian Martyrs whose statues were added to the west front of Westminster Abbey in 1998. In addition to their personal story, each one stands as a victim and constant reminder of one of the great ‘sins of our time’. One of these, Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest, was killed in Auschwitz extermination camp and is one whose life was taken in an Age of Mass Murder. He offered his own life to save a fellow prisoner who had more family responsibilities and was there simply because he was a Jew.

He was born in 1894 in Zdunska Wola into a family who were fervent both in their faith and their nationalism. At the age of 18 he went to Rome to study philosophy and theology. In October 1917 he and six other students formed a new body, Militia Immaculate, which promoted a powerful cult of the Virgin Mary and worked to secure converts and to perform good works.

Kolbe returned to lecture at the Franciscan seminary at Cracow. In 1927 the Militia Immaculate movement received a plot of land near Warsaw to develop their work. This was named ‘Niepokalanow’ - the city of the Immaculate. Here the community flourished, publishing prolifically, and soon its influence spread across Poland. In 1930, with four of his brothers, Kolbe travelled to Japan and bought land in Nagasaki to establish a second publishing centre.

In 1936 Kolbe returned again to Poland, by which time Niepokalanow was a thriving enterprise, producing nine journals with huge print runs. Kolbe viewed it not as a business, but as ‘a modern workshop of the improvement of man’. At the outbreak of war, he sent his brothers away but remained himself. When interned he refused to apply for release, but was freed for a time though soon detained again. At Auschwitz he was known discreetly to give his own food to other prisoners, although his own health was poor. He heard confessions and celebrated Mass, in spite of the risks and prohibitions. Late in July 1941, a prisoner in his own block escaped, and in the reprisals that followed Kolbe stepped forward to make his sacrifice. He was put in a starvation cell with nine others. Six died within two weeks. On 14 August 1941, the eve of the Assumption of Mary, Kolbe was still fully conscious when he was killed by lethal injection. The cell where he died is now a shrine. A memorial to one brave man certainly, but also to one whose death, because of where and how it happened, has come to symbolise one of the darkest aspects of human behaviour in an age where genocide, ‘disappearances’ and ethnic cleansing destroy whole peoples, communities and sections of society simply for being who they are.

Jim McLean
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 1st April 1999