Maximilian Kolbe’s life was a vigil for, and on behalf of, the Blessed Virgin Mary. His vigil began when he was a typical energetic and thoughtless boy. One day he ran afoul of his mother and sought refuge in church. As he prayed his mother’s words echoed in his mind: “My little Raymond, what will become of you?” He later told his mother:
“Momma, when you were cross with me, I prayed a lot to the Blessed Virgin to tell me what I would become…She then appeared to me holding two crowns in Her hands: one white and one red. She looked at me tenderly and asked me whether I wanted these two crowns. The white one stood for perseverance in purity and the red one for martyrdom. I answered that I accepted them. She then looked at me sweetly and disappeared.”
“The extraordinary change that came over the child was for me proof that the matter was true,” Marianna Kolbe said later. “He was permanently penetrated by it, and at every occasion he would allude, with a radiant face, to this martyr’s death that he desired.”
He was born Raymond Kolbe on January 8, 1894, near the large textile mills of Lodz, Poland. His parents, Juliusz and Marianna Kolbe, had Raymond baptized on the day he was born at the parish church of Our Lady of the Assumption. By coincidence or fate, the day Raymond Kolbe left the world was the Vigil of the Assumption.
But that is the end of the story. In the beginning Raymond was the second child, flanked by two other brothers, Francis and Joseph.1 In 1907 Francis and thirteen-year-old Raymond entered the Franciscan minor seminary in Lwow. He became “an honor student who excelled in math and the physical sciences, diagrammed model rockets, planned interplanetary flights, and made wireless sets and other scientific apparatus.”2 He also loved to play chess and ponder military problems. After three years a different problem presented itself: should he enter the Franciscan Order or join the Polish military?3
At the height of his ambivalence his mother paid an unexpected visit to the seminary. She told Raymond that his younger brother was also entering the religious life, that his father was joining the Franciscan Friars (third order), and that Marianna herself was joining the Benedictines (also third order). Beaming at Raymond, Marianna declared that now their whole family belonged to God. After she left Raymond asked for the Franciscan habit. His dilemma was ended.
The Militia Immaculata
The Franciscans gave him his religious name, Maximilian Maria, and sent him to Krakow. His talents were noticedand in 1912 Friar Maximilian was sent to Rome for further studies. In 1914 he made his perpetual vows and the First World War began.
Father Kolbe’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary may seem strange to non-Catholics. Didn't Kolbe love God more than Mary? For Catholics, however, Marian devotion is not inconsistent with worshiping God. In fact, many Catholics view Marian devotion as a significant asset in the spiritual life, and a sure road to God. Consider the love between a mother and a son. Now sanctify that love as the love between Jesus and Mary was sanctified. Would Jesus ever be far from Mary? And wouldn't Mary lead everyone she knew to the Son she loved so much?
So devoted to Mary was Father Kolbe that he began a new order called the Militia Immaculata. The conditions of membership were a “total offering of oneself to the Immaculate Blessed Virgin Mary, as an instrument in her immaculate hands,” and “to wear the Miraculous Medal.” The first meeting of the Militia Immaculata took place in Rome on October 16, 1917, 3 days after the miracle of the sun at Fatima, and one day before the Communist revolution in Russia. The founder of the new order10 was coughing up blood and suffering severe headaches. Earlier he had contracted an infection in his right thumb that caused the bone to decay. The doctors wanted to amputate, but Maximilian treated his abscessed thumb with a compress containing water from Lourdes. The thumb was not amputated. Maximilian’s doctor and several others were witnesses to what later was acknowledged as a miraculous cure.11
On April 28, 1918, Maximilian Kolbe was ordained a priest. The following day he celebrated his first Mass. He kept coughing up blood and was diagnosed as having pulmonary tuberculosis. He missed his studies for the entire month of October. In fact he was close to death, but rallied to complete his second doctorate degree the following year. When Kolbe left Rome in 1919 to return to Poland, his rector, Father Stephen Ignudi, penned the following summary for the college log book:
“Maximilian Kolbe, province of Galicia; arrived Oct. 29, 1912; ordained to the priesthood, April 28, 1918; degree in philosophy from Pontifical Gregorian University; degree in sacred theology from this College, July 22, 1919; departed July 23, 1919. A young saint.”14
He returned to a Poland that was free for the first time in one hundred and twenty-three years. Once one of the great Catholic powers of Europe, Poland was a spent force by the 18th century. It was carved up by its three neighbors, Russia, Prussia, and Austria, and ceased to exist as a geographic nation.
This was the world Maximilian Kolbe was born into. To attend Franciscan Seminary he had to transfer to Austrian occupied Galicia. By the end of the Great War Poland was declared an independent nation. Almost immediately, however, Bolshevik troops amassed on the eastern borders of the new nation. The Polish army was beaten back to the very gates of Warsaw.
Poised to capture the Polish capital, the Bolsheviks were routed in a surprising battle that became known as “The Miracle of the Vistula.” It occurred on August 15, 1920, the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (and three months after the birth of Karol Wojtyla, who would become Pope John Paul II). Most Poles attached religious significance to this victory.
At the time of the battle Father Maximilian Kolbe was at a Polish sanatorium not far from Krakow, recovering from a 105 degree fever and a relapse of his tuberculosis. Assigned to be Professor of History at the Cracow Seminary of Friars Minor Conventual, Kolbe’s damaged lungs left him unable to lecture in an audible voice. His health was so poor that slow, cautious movements were required to avoid hemorrhaging.
When he talked about the Blessed Virgin, the Militia Immaculata, and his plans to build printing presses to combat the anti-Christian media, he was dismissed by his fellow Franciscans as an impractical fool. “Behold, the dreamer cometh!” they joked when he carefully entered a room. They called Kolbe “Marmalade” for his slowness, and taunted him to his face. 16
His physical poverty was matched by his material poverty. Friar Bombrys, who lived in the same friary as Maximilian, described his cell:
“There was a cupboard and an old truckle-bed with a straw mattress so worn that it sank down like a cradle. On the cupboard at the foot of the bed there was a statue of the Immaculata. Images of the recently beatified Gemma Galgani and Therese of the Child Jesus stood on the old desk in the corner.”17
Worn out by physical sickness and saddened by ridicule, he spent over a year in sanatoriums. There was so much he wanted to do, but his body mocked his aspirations. Then he permanently lost the use of one lung. Instead of despairing he learned patience. Through it all he remained a knight of the Immaculata, profoundly convinced that:
“This is the age of the Blessed Virgin; now begins the era of Mary Immaculate. Mary is the Mother, the real Mother, of each one of us…and the Queen of Society. We must practically recognize Mary’s mission as Queen and Mother, then let her act fully, freely; she will then have unheard-of triumphs; she will conquer every enemy.”18
He recovered enough to return to Krakow at the end of 1921. At a time when newspapers were folding due to post-war depression, Father Kolbe obtained permission to start a monthly newspaper “for the glory of the Immaculate.” The first edition of Rycerz Niepokalanej (“Knight of the Immaculate,” herein “The Knight”), contained articles he wrote at the sanatorium. The 5,000 copies were all distributed by Father Kolbe, who gave most of them away. There was no money for the next issue. It was pure folly, everyone agreed. Then the miracles started.
Unable to pay printing costs for the next issue, he went to the Basilica of St. Francis in Krakow. There he prayed before an altar dedicated to the Madonna of the Seven Dolours. After praying for some time he noticed an envelope on the altar. In the envelope was a note - “For you, O Immaculate Mother” – and the exact sum of money necessary to print the next issue of The Knight. Then Max purchased a very expensive linotype machine (to set type), but neither he nor his Franciscan helpers knew how to operate it. The day after the big machine arrived a young man was admitted to the order. He was “a highly trained specialist” in printing, “and soon had the Linotype humming away happily, pounding out type for Maximilian’s publication.”19
Except for the specialist, nobody really knew what they were doing. Yet during three of the worst years of the Depression in Poland, the size of The Knight doubled (from sixteen to thirty-two pages) and circulation rose from 5,000 to 45,000 copies. By 1935 The Knight was the largest periodical in Poland, with a circulation of 700,000 copies. Kolbe also started a Franciscan daily newspaper, “Maly Dziennik” (“The Little Daily”). It was very inexpensive, and its circulation was also in the hundreds of thousands. By 1939 the total circulation of all publications produced by Father Kolbe was 1.5 million. This included “two publications for children and a quarterly in Latin.”20
Not bad for a man who suffered almost continually from tuberculosis and its complications. His doctor testified: “I was convinced he needed absolute rest. His activity seemed to me to be impossible with mere human strength, without a special intervention by God.” After noting that Kolbe’s temperature was often dangerously high, the doctor concluded: “Despite all, his activity was truly extraordinary.”21
His purpose was to bring glory to the Immaculata, and to counter the anti-Christian press. “The press is the fifth great power of the world,” Father Kolbe believed.
The Vigil Of Father Kolbe
In 1939 Kolbe’s town was ransacked by the Nazis. Kolbe and all the Franciscans of Niepokalanow were deported to Amtitz concentration camp. There they and thousands of other priests were starved and beaten for three months. Kolbe had already predicted, “I shall not survive this war,” but he kept this knowledge from his fellow prisoners. Instead he exhorted them, “We do not know what will become of us. Let us try to be ready for everything the Immaculate will want of us. Let us give ourselves completely to her, that she may ever guide us according to her will.”34
Of the 3,646 priests interred at the Nazi camp, 2,647 died there. Father Kolbe and his brothers were inexplicably released from the death camps - on December 8, 1939. They returned to Niepokalanow, and found it almost entirely destroyed. Father Kolbe opened a Red Cross camp to care for wounded and refugees. Taking advantage of this, the Nazis unloaded truck loads of Jews and other refugees for Kolbe and the Franciscan brothers to care for. They did so, even though they had to go begging for food to feed their charges. Amidst all his cares, Father Kolbe persistently asked the Germans to allow him to begin republishing The Knight. They allowed one issue, which was dated December 8, 1940.
This was probably part of an inducement for Father Kolbe to become a publishing organ for Nazi Germany. He firmly refused, and on the morning of February 17th, 1941, two Gestapo cars came to Niepokalanow. Father Kolbe, who was having continual premonitions of his death, was trying to finish a book on the Immaculata when he was arrested for the second and last time. “The last piece of writing from his pen that we possess," according to Father Villepelee, “contains the statement: ‘The Holy Spirit is the uncreated Immaculate Conception.’”35 Theprofundity of this dense, supernaturally charged sentence, is left for the reader to ponder.
While in a temporary jail – one built by the Russians for Polish prisoners during the partition – an SS guard attacked Father Kolbe because of his Franciscan habit and visible crucifix. The beating left him laying on the ground, bloody and bruised. His cell-mates begged him to take off the habit, but Father Kolbe reassured them he was all right: “That is nothing at all; it is all for the Little Mother.”He became “the spiritual protector and father of all his poor companions in prison. His whole person radiated calm, a penetrating gentleness, so much so that they all huddled around him.” 36
On May 28, 1941, he was transferred to Auschwitz for the last 79 days of his life. He was singled out for brutal treatment because he was a priest. Once a guard accused him of not working hard enough, struck him, and turned his dog on Father Kolbe. A witness remembered that even as the dog attacked him, Kolbe “remained surprisingly calm, and did not utter a word of complaint.” Another time he fell under a load purposely made too heavy to bear. As he lay on the ground he was called “an idler”, beaten with a stick, and kicked repeatedly in the head and body. Yet another time he was stretched out on a tree trunk and beaten nearly to death amid a chorus of taunts and blasphemies.
Miraculously, Father Kolbe not only lived but encouraged a fellow prisoner with these words: “All that we are suffering is for the Immaculate. Let them all see that we are confessors of the Immaculate.”
To punish the camp for an escaped prisoner, ten were selected for the “starvation bunker.” One of the men, Francis Gajowniczek, wept as he thought of his wife and family. Father Kolbe stepped forward. “I am a Catholic priest; I am old, I wish to take his place because he has a wife and children.” Kolbe’s offer was accepted by his captors. He and the other chosen ones were stripped and crammed into small cells already full of starving prisoners.
Every day guards visited the cells: not to bring food and water, but to remove corpses. At first the prisoners begged for food. Then they became silent, resigned to their fate. The guards, entering the cells, would find Father Kolbe, kneeling or standing, praying out loud. The remaining prisoners surrounded him, whispering and mumbling prayers. The camp doctor testified that this turn of events “had been a real psychological shock to the SS.” Even the guards who had tortured him later admitted: “This priest is wholly a man of honor. We have never had one like him before.”
Father Kolbe had been in the starvation bunker for four weeks when, in a scene reminiscent of Roman soldiers breaking the legs of crucifixion victims too long on the tree, an executioner entered the cell with vials of poison. Father Kolbe prayed, then offered his left arm to executioner. The poison was injected into his vein. The executioner left the cell, and a Polish prisoner employed by the camp entered. Later he testified: “When I opened the iron door he had ceased to live; but he appeared living to me. His face was radiant, in an unusual manner. His eyes were wide open and fixed on a point. His whole face was as though in ecstasy. It was a sight that I shall never forget.”
Father Maximilian Kolbe died in his cell at Auschwitz on August 14, 1941, the feast of the Vigil of the Assumption. On the Catholic Church’s new calendar, this is now also the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe. Does it not seem natural for the two toshare a day together?
- Two other brothers died in childhood: Walenty was born in 1897 and lived for only a year; Antoni was born in 1901 and died at age four.
- Patricia Treece, A Man For Others, Maximilian Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz, Harper & Row, 1982, p. 9.
- His brother Francis chose the military, where he served as an intelligence officer in both World Wars. In 1943 Francis Kolbe was captured by the Gestapo and imprisoned in Auschwitz, where he also died. Max’s younger brother, Joseph, also became a Franciscan. Brother Alphonsus (his religious name) succeeded Maximilian as Guardian of Niepokalanow when Maximilian was transferred to Japan. Alphonsus died on December 7, the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 1930.
- Jedrzej Giertych, Libel Against A Saint, The Truth About St. Maximilian Kolbe, Knight of the Immaculate, and implacable enemy of Freemasonry, Supplement to APPROACHES No. 79, pp. 3-4.
- Ibid., p. 4; see also CRC Volume No. 303, November 1997, p. 3.
- 6. Bro. Charles Madden, O.F.M. Conv., Freemasonry, Mankind’s Hidden Enemy, Tan Books, 1995, pp. 29-30.
- 7. Diana Dewar, The Saint Of Auschwitz, The Story of Maximilian Kolbe, Harper & Row, 1982, p. 37.
- 8. A. Ricciardi, Maximilian Kolbe, Priest And Martyr, Mediaspaul, 1987, p. 59, as quoted in CRC No. 303, November 1997, p. 4.The CRC’s story, Saint Maximilian-Mary, Martyr Of The Immaculate, is excellent.
- 9. CRC No. 303, p. 5 displays the first draft of the rule for the Militia Immaculatae.
10.Maximilian did this with the consent of religious superiors. The Militia received formal ecclesiastical approval on January 2, 1922.
11.Maria Winowska, The Death Camp Proved Him Real, The Life Of Blessed Maximilian Kolbe, Franciscan, Prow Books, 1971, Third Printing, pp. 32-33.
12.Ibid., p. 60.
13.Ricciardi, op. Cit., p. 62, note 20, as quoted in CRC No. 303, pp. 2-3.
14.Treese, op. Cit., p. 17.
15.Jedrzej Giertych, In Defence Of My Country, London, 1981, p. 214. Winowska, op. Cit., pp. 61-63.
16.Ibid., p. 64.
17.Boniface Hanley, O.F.M., Maximilian Kolbe, No Greater Love, Ave Maria Press, 1982, Chapter 2.
18.Ibid, Chapter 3, Beginnings At Grodno.
19.Giertych, Libel Against A Saint, op. Cit., p. 7. Donations and subscriptions allowed Father Kolbe to finance a small monastery/city, housing over 700 religious. The complex contained the printing facilities, and a church and a seminary, and was called Niepokalanow – “The Village of the Immaculate.”
20.CRC No. 303, p. 8.
21.Giertych, Libel Against A Saint, op. Cit., pp. 5-6
22.Ibid., p. 10.
23.Ibid., p. 21.
24.As quoted in Ezra Mendelsohn, On Modern Jewish Politics, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 42-43.
25.Lenni Brenner, Zionism In The Age Of The Dictators, Lawrence Hill Books, 1983, p. 191, and generally Ch. 20, which deals with inter-war Poland. Mr. Brenner is a Jewish journalist critical of Zionism.
26.Adam Zamoyski, The Polish Way, A Thousand year History of the Poles and their Culture, Hippocrene Books, Second Printing, 1995, p. 347.
27.Giertych, Libel Against A Saint, op. Cit., pp. 13-14.
28.Ibid., p. 14.
29.Ibid., p. 22
30.Madden, op. Cit., p. 30
31.See his remarks on the beatification of Father Kolbe, reprinted in the foreword to Father Manteau-Bonamy’s Immaculate Conception And The Holy Spirit, The Marian Teachings of St. Maximilian Kolbe, Prow Books, 1977, pp. Xxii-xxiii. Ibid., pp. X.
32.CRC No. 303, p. 17.
33.Manteau-Bonamy, op. Cit., p. xxxiii.
34.CRC. No. 303, p. 19. The rest of the quoted remarks in this article are from CRC No. 303.