If asked to reflect upon the horrors of the Holocaust, what would you think of first? Perhaps you will automatically call to mind Nazis, Hitler, or the Diary of a Young Girl. Maybe you’ll recall stories of the infamous concentration camp, Auschwitz, a waking nightmare to those forced to suffer through the daily toil, shaded by the patient wings of death. You may not think, however, of a particular member of that camp, branded with the number 16670 in place of his name. Maximilian Kolbe.
Ironically, this man who suffered and died at the hands of soldiers once aspired to be part of the military himself, dreaming to save Poland from oppressors by serving as a soldier. St. Maximilian was born as Raymond Kolbe on January 8th, 1894, in Zdunska Wola, Poland. He was a particularly mischievous child until, after being reprimanded by his mother, he went to pray. He states, “I prayed very hard to Our Lady to tell me what would happen to me. She appeared, holding in her hands two crowns, one white, one red. She asked if I would like to have them—one was for purity, the other for martyrdom. I said, ‘I choose both.’ She smiled and disappeared.” He entered a junior Franciscan seminary in Lwow, where he excelled at mathematics and physics, feeding his passion for all things military. His teachers saw in him great potential in the sciences or as a strategist, based off of his intelligence and military interest. However, he abandoned his military passion for the priesthood after his parents announced that they were going into religious life since all of their children were in seminaries, and he couldn’t bear to disappoint them. Professing his final vows in 1914, he took the name Maximilian Mary Kolbe, displaying his devotion to Mary, family, and God.
He founded and published the religious magazine Knight of the Immaculata from his “City of the Immaculata” in Niepokalanow. It seemed he had found a new way to fight, as a soldier of Christ. Maximilian later built the monastery Mugenzai no Sono, or the Garden of the Immaculate, on the slopes of Mount Kikosan in Nagasaki, Japan. The site he chose was poverty-ridden and inconvenient, far from advisable for building. However, it proved lucky when the atomic bomb struck Nagasaki in 1945. Mugenzai no Sono sustained little to no damage thanks to the mountain taking most of the force from the blast.
During World War II back in Poland, Maximillian continued to shelter refugees from Poland and hide Jews from the Nazis while vilifying the Nazis in his amateur radio reports and letters. The Gestapo imprisoned him in the Pawiak prison in Warsaw on February 17th, 1941, singling him out for special abuse before transferring him to Auschwitz May 25th as prisoner #16670. Despite the terrors he was forced to endure, Maximillian radiated God’s love and generosity, opening his heart to tell the other prisoners of the endless reach of his God’s love and fighting for the souls of those imprisoned.