Kolbe was a Polish priest who knew his mission was to give his life so that another might live, and who thanked God for the privilege. Kolbe had an ardent and invigorated religious faith which caused a vision of Mary, the Mother of God, which beckoned him to the faith and priesthood. She offered him two crowns, one of purity and one of martyrdom. He asked for both. With several other seminarians, he formed the Militia Immaculata, the Crusade of Immaculate Mary, with the purpose of “converting sinners, heretics and schismatics, particularly freemasons” to the love of Christ through the intercession of Mary. He threw himself into the work of the Militia Immaculata, founding chapters throughout Poland, and publishing a monthly magazine, the Knight of the Immaculate, determined to make Mary the “Queen of every Polish heart.” Poland’s brief episode of independence ended with Nazi Germany’s invasion in 1939, and the beginning of World War Two. The German Army had occupied Father Kolbe’s monastery, the City of the Immaculate. The monks and priests living there, including Father Kolbe, were arrested and deported to Germany in September of that year. They were released a couple of months later, appropriately on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, returned home, and renewed their ministry. They continued printing monthly issues of the Knight and their various other publications, including some that were considered antithetical to Nazi ideology. In what was perceived as a direct challenge to their Nazi rulers, Father Kolbe published a sermon under his own name in the Knight: “The real conflict is inner conflict. Beyond the armies of occupation and the catacombs of concentration camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves.”In February 1941, the Gestapo seized their printing presses and arrested Father Kolbe and his brothers. “Have courage;” he told them, “we are going on a mission.”
In May, Father Kolbe was transferred to Auschwitz, dressed in a prisoner’s striped uniform, and tattooed with the number 16670. All through his terrible ordeal he secretly carried out his ministry. He heard confessions, preached love and forgiveness, blessed the sick and dying, and prayed for them. When the desperately hungry prisoners pushed and shoved one another in the food lines, Father Kolbe waited for all to receive their meager ration of bread or soup before he took his. Often he went without any food. When he did receive his small portion, he shared it with others.
One day in July, a prisoner from Father Kolbe’s cell block who had drowned in a camp latrine and not been found was believed to have escaped. All the prisoners in the block were ordered to stand at attention in the prison yard, under the hot sun, for the entire day. If the missing man was not betrayed or found by three o’clock that afternoon, ten of them would be taken to the starvation cell, and left naked in that underground dungeon where no light was admitted, without cover to protect against the cold, and without any food or water until they all slowly died. After many hours and after many prisoners had dropped unconscious to the ground, weakened by hunger and the heat, Commandant Fritsch singled out his ten men. One of them, a member of the Polish resistance, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out in despair, “My poor wife. My poor children. What will become of them?” Unmoved by the cries of the unfortunate ten, Commandant Fritsch stared at the small part of humanity whose lives and deaths were disposed of at his whim. Mercy was unknown to him. But before he turned away, one prisoner who had not been selected left the line, walked quickly toward him, and spoke to him. Fritsch didn’t hear the words Father Kolbe spoke. “What does this Polish pig want?” he asked a guard. Father Kolbe repeated his request. He pointed at Franciszek Gajowniczek and said, “I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.” In the end, Father Kolbe died as he lived, with compassion for all; both guards and the condemned.