In the summer of 1941, the Auschwitz internee whose number was 16670 went toe to toe with the Nazis running the camp. When ten men were sentenced to death in the starvation bunker in reprisal for an escape, one of those selected–Francis Gajowniczek–called out in anguish not for his own fate, but for that of his wife and children. Prisoner 16670 was spurred into action.
His name was Maximilian Kolbe, and he was a well-known Franciscan friar. Incarcerated for (among other reasons) publishing an article defending the notion of unalterable, objective truth, Father Kolbe had had a vision as a child of receiving from the hands of Mary, the Mother of God, two crowns. One crown was white, indicating purity; the other red, for martyrdom. The young Raymond Kolbe, who would take the religious name of Maximilian, accepted both.
As Prisoner 16670, Father Maximilian stepped out of line and offered to exchange his own life for that of the afflicted Gajowniczek. His offer, according to the inscrutable operations of Providence, was accepted. The man who was to become Saint Maximilian suffered and died in the starvation bunker in place of someone who was a total stranger to him.
On October 10, 1982, Pope John Paul II canonized his fellow countryman, characterizing the self-sacrifice of the Hero of Auschwitz in the following, most telling terms:
Father Maximilian Kolbe, himself being a prisoner in that place of death, defended the right to life of an innocent man.
He defended his right to life, declaring that he was ready to go to death in the man’s place, because he was the father of a family and his life was precious to his dear ones.
Father Maximilian Maria Kolbe thus reaffirmed the Creator’s exclusive right over innocent human life.
It was Prisoner 16670, in other words, who has blazed the trail for those of us committed to conquering the Culture of Death. Father Maximilian has accomplished as a prototype what we have set out to do. It is therefore his example to which we must conform ourselves; his methods which we must implement; his cause that we must take up. He did not make any secret of that cause, either–to cast the hearts of those now living, and who will ever live in this world, at the feet of the Queen of Heaven and Earth. The only heart to begin with, for each of us, is our own.