He was 47. The other man was 41. The latter man would go on to live for 53 more years, because of the former man who went on to live for only a couple more weeks.
Maximilian and Franciszek faced a brutal situation reflecting man’s inhumanity to man, but it was soon redeemed as a moment reflecting man’s humanity to man, all because of a choice.
In July 1941, both Maximilian and Franciszek were prisoners in Auschwitz I. One of their inmates disappeared and the Nazis sought to retaliate by selecting 10 men to face death by starvation to deter future escapes. When Franciszek Gajowniczek was selected, he cried out that he had a wife and children, pleading that his life be spared.
Observing this, Maximilian, also known as Father Kolbe, made a choice to step forward and offer his own life instead. When Franciszek Gajowniczek was 93 years old, he still recalled that day: “Father Kolbe told the commandant, ‘I want to go instead of the man who was selected. He has a wife and family. I am alone. I am a Catholic priest.’”
The commandant agreed to the switch.
What awaited Father Kolbe was not a quick death, but rather days of suffering, sitting cold and naked without food or water. Yet again, his focus was not on the self, but the other: He helped calm those within the cell and surrounding ones by singing and praying. He provided consolation to them, and was the last to be killed.
A Polish man assigned to work in the building had eye-witness testimony of the final days of Father Kolbe and his fellow prisoners:
“In the cell of the poor wretches there were daily loud prayers, the rosary and singing, in which prisoners from neighbouring cells also joined. When no SS men were in the Block I went to the Bunker to talk to the men and comfort them…I had the impression I was in a church. Fr. Kolbe was leading and the prisoners responded in unison. They were often so deep in prayer that they did not even hear that inspecting SS men had descended to the Bunker; and the voices fell silent only at the loud yelling of their visitors. When the cells were opened the poor wretches cried loudly and begged for a piece of bread and for water, which they did not receive, however. If any of the stronger ones approached the door he was immediately kicked in the stomach by the SS men, so that falling backwards on the cement floor he was instantly killed; or he was shot to death.
“…Fr. Kolbe bore up bravely, he did not beg and did not complain but raised the spirits of the others…. Since they had grown very weak, prayers were now only whispered. At every inspection, when almost all the others were now lying on the floor, Fr. Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the centre as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men. Two weeks passed in this way. Meanwhile one after another they died, until only Fr. Kolbe was left.
“This the authorities felt was too long; the cell was needed for new victims. So one day they brought in the head of the sick-quarters, a German, a common criminal named Bock, who gave Fr Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid in the vein of his left arm. Fr Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, himself gave his arm to the executioner. Unable to watch this I left under the pretext of work to be done. Immediately after the SS men with the executioner had left I returned to the cell, where I found Fr Kolbe leaning in a sitting position against the back wall with his eyes open and his head drooping sideways. His face was calm and radiant.”
Six years ago, I walked the very ground both men stood. When I wrote to family and friends back home, I said, “I’m finding it difficult to find the words to describe the experience of walking around a place built for such evil. It was gut-wrenching.” One of the most emotional moments I experienced at Auschwitz I was standing at the basement cell door where Father Kolbe (since canonized a Roman Catholic saint) spent his final days.
As is the practise for the tours at Auschwitz, before going past the cell (where there is a memorial inside) our tour guide explained, “Within concentration camps there were some resistance movements that were organized. We tell Kolbe’s story because he showed the greatest resistance to the Nazis: by staying human.”