The Sandbag Times Issue No: 19

sandbagtimes

The Veterans Magazine

The Historic Tommy Atkins

Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, himself gave his

arm to the executioner. Unable to watch this I left

under the pretext of work to be done.

Immediately after the SS men had left I

returned to the cell, where I found Father Kolbe

leaning in a sitting position against the back wall

with his eyes open and his head drooping

sideways. His face was calm and radiant.”

After he died Father Kolbe’s body was

disposed of, as many thousands of others had,

without dignity or ceremony. It was recorded that

his remains were cremated on 15 August, the feast

day of the Assumption of Mary.

The heroism of Father Kolbe went echoing

through Auschwitz. In that place filled with

hatred he had sown love.

A survivor Jozef

Stemler later

recalled, “In the

midst of a

brutalization of

thought, feeling and

words such as had

never before been

known, man indeed

became a ravening

wolf in his relations

with other men.

And into this state

of affairs came the

heroic self-sacrifice

of Father Kolbe.”

Another survivor

Jerzy Bielecki

declared that Father Kolbe's death was “a shock

filled with hope, bringing new life and strength.

It was like a powerful shaft of light in the

darkness of the camp.”

So who was the stranger that Kolbe saved?

Franciszek Gajowniczek, a Roman Catholic, was

born in Strachomin near Mińsk Mazowiecki. He

lived in Warsaw since 1921, and had a wife and

two sons. He was a professional soldier who took

part in the defence of Wieluń as well as Warsaw

in September 1939. He was captured by the

Gestapo in Zakopane. He arrived at Auschwitz on

8th September 1940, prisoner #26273. He found

himself among the ten randomly chosen men to

be starved to death due to a fellow prisoner

escaping camp. It was then that he was saved, by

the Franciscan priest, Kolbe. He heard

Gajowniczek cry out in agony over the fate of his

family and offered himself instead (for which he

was later canonized).

What became of Gajowniczek?

Gajowniczek was sent from Auschwitz to

Sachsenhausen concentration camp on October

25, 1944. He was liberated there by the Allies,

after spending five years, five months, and nine

days in German concentration camps in total. He

was reunited with his wife, Helena, half-a-year

later in Rawa Mazowiecka. Although she

survived the war, his sons were killed in a Soviet

bombardment of German occupied Poland in

1945, just before his release.

On 17th October 1971, Gajowniczek found

himself as a guest of Pope Paul VI in the Vatican,

when Maximilian Kolbe was beatified (blessed)

for his martyrdom. The cell where Father Kolbe

had died became a shrine and in 1972, Time

magazine reported that over 150,000 people made

a pilgrimage to Auschwitz to honour the

anniversary of Maximilian’s beatification. One

of the first to speak was Gajowniczek, who

declared “I want to express my thanks, for the

gift of life.” Gajowniczek’s wife, Helena, died in

1977, and on October 10th 1982 Gajowniczek

was back in the Vatican again as a guest of Pope

John Paul II when Maximilian Kolbe was

canonized (‘Sainted’).

In 1994, Gajowniczek visited the St.

Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church of Houston,

where he told his translator Chaplain Thaddeus

Horbowy that “so long as he … has breath in his

lungs, he would consider it

his duty to tell people about

the heroic act of love by

Maximilian Kolbe.”

Gajowniczek died in the city

of Brzeg on March 13, 1995

at the age of 95. He was

buried at a convent cemetery

in Niepokalanów, 53 years

after having his life spared

by Kolbe.

“A single act of

love makes the soul

return to life.”

Saint Maximilian

Kolbe

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