The penalty for escaping from Auschwitz was steep and cruel. For every man who escaped, ten would be executed in his place.
And so it happened that one morning the count came up one man short. The prisoners were called to the yard, standing in rows – bags of bones in tattered gray uniforms.
The commandant read ten names.
Can you imagine the knot in Franciszek Gajowniczek’s stomach that morning? Remembering his wife’s touch, her face, her voice. His children. The life in Poland he had to return to.
“Gajowniczek!” the commandant shouted.
Francis crumpled. Another prisoner stepped forward.
“Take me instead,” he pleaded with commandant. “He has a wife and family. I am alone. I am a Catholic priest. I am elderly.”
Maxmilian Kolbe was 47. Francis was 41.
The priest was called the “Christ of Auschwitz” by the other prisoners. When someone was hungry – no hungrier than Maximilian – he would give his bread. When someone was cold – no colder than Maximilian – he would give his blanket.
Maximilian was not a Jew. He was a priest arrested for protecting Jews. And now he was offering his life for a Jew.
The guards locked the priest and the nine other prisoners in a cage made for dogs where they would be starved to death. One by one they died, with Maximillian comforting, singing, quoting the Psalms, praying.
After three weeks of starvation and dehydration, only four men remained. One of them a priest – still comforting, singing, quoting, praying. Unbroken. Starvation could not take his life. Death could not kill his joy. Cruelty could not silence his worship.
76 years ago today, a doctor entered the kennel and plunged a lethal injection of carbolic acid into Maxmillian Kolbe.
For the rest of his life, Francis told the world about the “Christ of Auschwitz” who died in his place. In 1994 he said, “So long as I have breath in my lungs, I will consider it my duty to tell people about this heroic act of love.”