The Ultimate Sacrifice

80 years ago, a Polish man died. Here’s why.

In July 1941 a prisoner escaped from Auschwitz – the largest of the Nazi concentration and death camps.

The camp commandant had a brutal response in such situations. The prisoners from the block where there had been an escape were assembled. If the escaped prisoner was not found by the end of the day, as a reprisal, ten inmates would be executed by starvation for each escapee.

On that July day, the escapee was not found. (He was later discovered drowned in a toilet.) The Nazis selected ten inmates from the escapee’s block to be starved to death. They included a 40-year-old Polish soldier, Franciszek Gajowniczek.

On being chosen, Gajowniczek began to beg for his life, crying: ‘My wife, my children. I will never see them again.’

At that moment Maximilian Kolbe, a 47-year-old Polish priest, stepped forward and offered to take his place. Kolbe had no wife or children, he explained, and he asked if he could die instead of Gajowniczek. Witnesses said later that the Auschwitz commandant was so stunned that he was unable to speak. Eventually, he sent Gajowniczek back to his place and Kolbe replaced him.

Kolbe and the other nine men were locked in an underground bunker and left to starve to death. As the days wore on, there were no cries for mercy or sounds of weeping. In the bunker, Kolbe continued to comfort his fellow victims and it was their singing and prayers that were heard. The prisoners in the cell survived two weeks – longer than was normal. Eventually guards killed the final four with lethal injections on 14 August 1941. The last prisoner conscious was Maximilian Kolbe.


Franciszek Gajowniczek survived Auschwitz.

He had joined the Polish army as a young man and had been captured by the Germans in 1940 and sent to Auschwitz, where he was branded with the number 5659. He spent more than five years in Auschwitz and in another Nazi camp, Sachenhausen.

Gajowniczek died a free man in 1995, a great-grandfather who never forgot what the priest had done for him. He spent the rest of his life telling people about the man who had died in his place.

Maximilian Kolbe is now remembered for his supreme sacrifice in dying in the place of another prisoner who had been condemned to death following the apparent escape of a fellow inmate. In laying down his life, Kolbe followed the example described by Jesus Christ in the Bible book written by John, where Jesus said, ‘Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends’.

Who was Maximilian Kolbe?

Born Raymond Kolbe in 1894 to a poor but religious family in Russian-occupied Poland, Kolbe grew up always knowing about Jesus. His parents were members of the Franciscan Order, a Roman Catholic group of Christian believers founded in the 13th century. Kolbe attended a Franciscan seminary at Lwow (now Lviv in Ukraine) – a school for young people who were interested in becoming priests. While there, he often wondered whether he would be better suited to being a soldier, but by the age of 16 he had decided that he was called to the priesthood. He was ordained as a novice in the Franciscan Order. As was the Order’s practice, he took a new name, Maximilian, after a famous Christian who had been killed for refusing to deny his faith more than 1,600 years earlier.

After training in Rome, Kolbe became a full member of the Franciscan Order and was ordained as a Roman Catholic Priest in 1919. He returned to Poland to teach in a seminary and founded monasteries for male members of the Franciscan Order, first in Poland, then in India and Japan. In the Polish monastery near Warsaw, he also set up a printing press, producing magazines and a daily newspaper.

When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Kolbe assumed they would seize his monastery, so he sent most of the brothers home. He was arrested and imprisoned for a short time. After his release he began using his monastery as a safe house for refugees. More than 3,000 people were sheltered there, including 2,000 Jews. Although he had been ordered to stop printing, the presses now turned out pamphlets and newspapers protesting against the Nazi regime. Kolbe was arrested and jailed again in February 1941 for sheltering refugees. In May he was transferred to Auschwitz.

Life in Auschwitz

Despite his ill health, Kolbe and other clergymen were forced to carry logs. If he slowed down, the guards set dogs on him. If he fell over, he was beaten up. Kolbe continued to act as a priest to the other inmates, sharing what little food he had and giving comfort in every way he could, even though there were many who were not suffering as badly as he was.

Even when he had been beaten up, Kolbe used his time in the infirmary to encourage other patients. He even made sure that he was always the last to receive treatment. Rudolph Diem, the doctor in the concentration camp infirmary, later recalled: ‘I can say with certainty that during my four years in Auschwitz, I never saw such a sublime example of the love of God and one’s neighbour.’


Nicky Gumbel, who presents the Alpha course, uses Kolbe’s story to explain why Jesus Christ died. On Alpha, a course which has been taken by more than 25 million people around the world, Gumbel says: ‘Maximilian Kolbe died instead of someone else and, in an even more remarkable way, Jesus died instead of you and instead of me.’


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