Maximilian Kolbe was born in Poland in 1894. He joined the Franciscan Order and was ordained priest in 1918. His original name was Raymund but he was given the name of Maximilian upon entering his Order.
His work in Poland included founding a number of Franciscan monasteries, a radio station and setting up a monthly newspaper.
In 1930 he was sent to Japan where, for the next six years, he founded another monastery, this time in Nagasaki. He also established another newspaper and set up a seminary.
At the time, Kolbe was criticised for the location of his monastery, set as it was on a mountainside. Some Japanese who followed the Shinto religion felt it wasn’t in keeping with nature. Interestingly, when Nagasaki was destroyed by the atomic bomb in 1945, Kolbe’s monastery was one of the few buildings to survive – precisely because of its location.
Kolbe returned to Poland in 1936 and was there for the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, Maximilian sheltered around 2,000 Jews trying to avoid capture.
In 1941 Kolbe himself was arrested by the Gestapo and after three months in prison was transferred to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
In July of that year, three prisoners managed to escape from the camp and, as a deterrent to others, the Commandant ordered ten men to be picked at random and starved to death.
As the ten prisoners were being led off to an underground bunker, one of them cried out for his wife and children. Immediately, Maximilian Kolbe, a single man with no family of his own, volunteered to take his place.
During the process of starvation, Kolbe is said to have comforted the other dying prisoners, leading them in prayer. When after two weeks only Maximilian was still alive, the prison guards speeded things up by killing him with a lethal injection.
In 1982 Maximilian Kolbe was canonized as a martyr by Pope John Paul II. At the ceremony were the family of the man, Franciszek Gajowniczek, whom he had saved from starvation.
Maximilian’s canonization as a martyr caused some controversy at the time. Although Kolbe’s death was heroic he was not killed specifically because he was a Christian, and therefore arguably not technically a martyr.
However, Pope John Paul II wished to make the point that the Nazi holocaust, primarily directed at the Jewish people, was an act of hatred against humanity and against faith and in that sense St Maximilian died upholding the values of Christianity.