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Maximilian Kolbe and the Redemption of Auschwitz

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A pilgrimage to the site of the Polish priest's martyrdom reminds the author that violence can never win

We were graced this month to travel to Poland on a parish pilgrimage. It was my first extended visit to the country, so it was therefore a great joy to visit Niepokalanow — the friary of St. Maximilian Kolbe. The visit started with Mass in the simple chapel founded by the saint. We continued by visiting his cell, viewing his relics and then worshipping in the modern basilica that stands on the site.

The next day our pilgrims visited the great Marian shrine of Czestochowa before going on to Auschwitz. The amazing accomplishments of St. Maximilian Kolbe climaxed in his death at the extermination camp, and to visit his monastic cell one day and his death cell the next was an awesome, moving and troubling experience. Here was a man, who, from his early life, decided to live for others and ended his life dying for another.

Raymund Kolbe was born on January 8, 1894, in Zduńska Wola, Poland. In 1907 Kolbe and his brother Francis left to join the Franciscans. Three years later he became a Franciscan novice, taking the name Maximillian.

A brilliant student, Kolbe earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1915, then continued his studies at the Pontifical University of St. Bonaventure where he earned a doctorate in theology. In 1918, he was ordained a priest and returned to the newly independent Poland, where he was active in promoting the veneration of the Immaculate Virgin Mary. From 1919 to 1922 he taught at the Kraków seminary. In January 1922 he founded the monthly periodical named Knight of the Immaculate, and over the next few years his publishing endeavors grew amazingly. Young men flocked to join him, and In 1927 he founded a new Franciscan monastery at Niepokalanów near Warsaw, which boasted almost 800 young friars and became a huge religious publishing center. To cope with the army of men wanting to serve Jesus and Mary, Kolbe founded a junior seminary was opened there two years later.

If that wasn’t enough, between 1930 and 1936, Kolbe undertook a series of missions to the Far East, at first in China, and then in Japan and Malabar in India. With only one lung from a bout with tuberculosis, living in abject poverty and working tirelessly, Kolbe’s health was failing. Back at Niepokalanów he started a radio station and became increasingly involved in giving a Catholic response to the growing troubles with Germany. Then in 1939, after the German invasion of Poland, Kolbe’s troubles with the Nazis began.

He and his brothers hid Jews at Niepokalanów and eventually the Nazis arrested Kolbe and shipped him to Auschwitz, where he died by injection of carbolic acid after being starved for two weeks. The Franciscan friar had stepped forward to offer his life for that of another prisoner, who had pleaded for his life because he had a wife and children.

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