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Meet the man St. Maximilian Kolbe replaced in Auschwitz

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Today is the great saint’s feast day. The story of his martyrdom is well-known, but I’m not sure how many know the details about the man whose life he saved. It’s chronicled in Wikipedia: 

Franciszek Gajowniczek, a Roman Catholic, was born in Strachomin near Mińsk Mazowiecki. He lived in Warsaw since 1921, and had a wife and two sons. He was a professional soldier who took part in the defence of Wieluń as well as Warsaw in September 1939. He was captured by the Gestapo in Zakopane. He arrived at Auschwitz on September 8, 1940. When a prisoner appeared to have escaped, Sub-Commandant Karl Fritzsch ordered that ten other prisoners die bystarvation in reprisal. Franciszek Gajowniczek (prisoner number 5659) was one of those selected at roll-call. When the Franciscan priest, Kolbe, heard Gajowniczek cry out in agony over the fate of his family, he offered himself instead (for which he was later canonized). Kolbe’s exact words have been forgotten, but one version records his words as, “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.” The switch was permitted; after all his cellmates died, Kolbe (prisoner 16670) was put to death with an injection of carbolic acid.[2]

Gajowniczek was sent from Auschwitz to Sachsenhausen concentration camp on October 25, 1944. He was liberated there by the Allies, after spending five years, five months, and nine days in Nazi camps in total. He reunited with his wife, Helena, half-a-year later in Rawa Mazowiecka. Though she survived the war, his sons were killed in a Soviet bombardment of Nazi-occupied Poland in 1945, before his release.

Gajowniczek was a guest of Pope Paul VI in the Vatican, when Maximilian Kolbe was beatified for his martyrdom on October 17, 1971. In 1972, Time magazine reported that over 150,000 people made a pilgrimage to Auschwitz to honor the anniversary of Maximilian’s beatification. One of the first to speak was Gajowniczek, who declared “I want to express my thanks, for the gift of life.” His wife, Helena, died in 1977. Gajowniczek was in the Vatican again as a guest of Pope John Paul II when Maximilian Kolbe was canonized by him on October 10, 1982.

In 1994, Gajowniczek visited the St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church of Houston, where he told his translator Chaplain Thaddeus Horbowy that “so long as he … has breath in his lungs, he would consider it his duty to tell people about the heroic act of love by Maximilian Kolbe.” Gajowniczek died in the city of Brzeg on March 13, 1995 at the age of 93. He was buried at a convent cemetery in Niepokalanów, slightly more than 53 years after having his life spared by Kolbe.

He visited Philadelphia in 1990. From The Philadelphia Inquirer: 

For one moment at Auschwitz, he became the turnstile through which the priest passed to the death that would earn him sainthood.

Franciszek Gajowniczek (pronounced guy-of-KNEE-check) stood near the altar after Communion on Saturday evening and spoke to the congregation through an interpreter, Maria McGinn, a parishioner born in Poland.

On July 30, 1941, at the Auschwitz concentration camp in the back country of Poland, a German officer ordered the men from a certain barracks to assemble, because a prisoner from that barracks had escaped.

“This was to serve as an example to everyone,” Gajowniczek said, “so they would be afraid to flee.”

Ten men would be chosen to die.

“The officer stood in front of me,” he told the congregation, “and pointed and I knew I was chosen to die.”

” ‘I am losing my wife,’ ” Gajowniczek said he told the officer, ” ‘and my children will now be orphaned.’ “

But then the prisoner-priest stepped out from the crowd of other prisoners. And spoke.

” ‘I want to take the place of this man. He has a wife and a family. I have no one. I am a Catholic priest.’ “

The survivor looked at the priest. Concentration camp rules forbade them

from saying a word.

“He had a satisfied look on his face,” Gajowniczek said, “and seemed very contented that he was doing this.”

The 10 were taken away, stripped naked, confined and left to starve.

On Aug. 14, 1941, the four who had not yet died, including the priest, were each injected with a poison.

The priest, the survivor told the congregation, “is the patron saint of anyone in need . . . the patron saint of anyone that needs help.”

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