Maximilian Kolbe was born on 8 January 1894 in Zduńska Wola, in the Kingdom of Poland, which was a part of the Russian Empire, the second son of weaver Julius Kolbe, a Germany and midwife Maria Dąbrowska, a Polish. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Pabianice.
Little Raymond was known as a mischievous child, sometimes considered wild, and a trial to his parents. However, in 1906 at Pabianice, at age twelve and around the time of his first Communion, he received a vision of the Virgin Mary that changed his life.
“That night I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked me if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both.”
Kolbe entered the Franciscan junior seminary in Lwow, Poland in 1907 where he excelled in mathematics and physics. For a while he wanted to abandon the priesthood for the military, but eventually relented to the call to religious life, and on 4 September 1910 he became a novice in the Conventual Franciscan Order at age 16. He took the name Maximilian, made his first vows on 5 September 1911, his final vows on 1 November 1914.
He felt a strong motivation to ‘fight for Mary’ against enemies of the church. It was Kolbe who sought to reinvigorate the work of the MI (Militia Immaculata). Kolbe helped the Immaculata Friars to publish high pamphlets, books and a daily newspaper – Maly Dziennik. The monthly magazine grew to have a circulation of over 1 million and was influential amongst Polish Catholics. Kolbe even gained a radio licence and publicly broadcast his views on religion. Kolbe was successful in using the latest technology to spread his message.
As well as writing extensive essays and pieces for the newspaper, Kolbe composed the Immaculata Payer – the consecration to the immaculately conceived Virgin Mary. He also composed Polish songs to the Virgin Mary.
In 1930, Kolbe travelled to Japan, where he spent several years serving as a missionary. He founded a monastery on the outskirts of Nagasaki (the monastery survived the atomic blast, shielded by a mountain). While serving as a missionary, Kolbe sought to accept local Japanese customs. For example, he chose the location of the new monastery based on Shinto customs. Although the location on the side of the mountain was strange, its position helped it to survive the later Atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. He also entered into dialogue with local Buddhist priests and some of them became friends. However, increasingly ill, he returned to Poland in 1936.
At the start of the Second World War, Kolbe was residing in the friary at Niepokalanow, the “City of the Immaculata.” By that time, it had expanded from 18 friars to 650 friars, making it the largest Catholic house in Europe.
When Poland was overrun by the Nazi forces in 1939, he was arrested under general suspicion on 13 September, but was released after three months. On 17 February 1941, he was arrested by the Gestapo for hiding Jewish people, he was sent to Auschwitz concentration camp and branded prisoner #16670. Despite the awful conditions of Auschwitz, people report that Kolbe retained a deep faith, equanimity and dignity in the face of appalling treatment.
In July 1941, three prisoners appeared to have escaped from the camp; as a result the Deputy Commander of Auschwitz ordered 10 men to be chosen to be starved to death in an underground bunker.
When one of the selected men Franciszek Gajowniczek heard he was selected, he cried out “My wife! My children!” At this point Kolbe volunteered to take his place.
The Nazi commander replied, “What does this Polish pig want?”
Father Kolbe pointed with his hand to the condemned Franciszek Gajowniczek and repeated “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.”
Rather surprised, the commander accepted Kolbe in place of Gajowniczek.
The men were led away to the underground bunker where they were to be starved to death. It is said that in the bunker, Kolbe would lead the men in prayer and singing hymns to Mary. When the guards checked the cell, Kolbe could be seen praying in the middle.
After two weeks, nearly all the prisoners, except Kolbe had died due to dehydration and starvation. Because the guards wanted the cell emptied, the remaining prisoners and Kolbe were executed with a lethal injection. Those present say he calmly accepted death, lifting up his arm. His remains were unceremoniously cremated on 15 August.