An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: Raymund Kolbe

Posted on August 6, 2013


History is littered with actions that transcend normal kindness, that go way above what most of us would do for our friends, let alone complete strangers. World War Two was a time of humanity giving many example of how terrible it can be, but shining through the madness were many examples of human good. Most of us will be aware of Oskar Schindler, some of us may be aware of John Rabe, not many are aware of Raymund Kolbe. This is his story.

He was born on the 8th of January, 1894, in Zdunska Wola (Poland), not far from Lodz. At this time it was a part of the Russian Empire, but it was a particularly tense and nervous time for the Poles under the Tsars. The Russian Empire was crumbling to say the least, and within 20 years it would be no more. Raymund was the second eldest of four brothers, two of whom died at a very young age. His parents were initially poor basket weavers, but would move in search of further opportunities. Unfortunately, his father would be hanged for his work towards Polish independence. Bugger.

In 1907, Raymund and his elder brother would illegally cross the border into the Austro-Hungarian empire to join the Conventual Franciscans (an order of Catholic friars founded by Francis of Assisi). They quickly enrolled at a secondary boarding school in Lviv, and Raymund was given the religious name Maximillian. He went on to study in Krakow and Rome during a time when protests against the pope were rife. In many towns it wasn’t unusual to see effigies of the pope and other catholic figures placed burning below the feet of a mock up of Lucifer. As you do. Raymund was a hardy soul however, and he would go on to organize the Militia Immaculata (Army of Mary), which would work towards the conversion of sinners and enemies of the Catholic church. They concentrated specifically on the Freemasons, and had some sort of success.

They were lucky in that they were able to utilize state of the art printing and administration techniques, leading to a daily paper with a circulation of around 230,000 and a monthly magazine that reached over a million human beings. Kolbe used radio to spread the catholic faith, and to speak out against the crimes and atrocities of the Nazi party in Germany at the time. Indeed, Kolbe is the only canonized saint that has an amateur radio license. He was ordained as a priest in 1918, and returned to a newly independent Poland in 1919. Near to Warsaw he founded a monastery among other organizations, and as the 30s rolled around he would head to Japan to work for his faith there. He founded another monastery in Nagasaki, that managed to survive the A-bomb there as it was built on the side of a mountain that took the majority of the blast.

World War Two rolled around though, and changed everything, as for most in Europe. Kolbe would provide shelter for many refugees in his monastery, including 2000 Jews at the time. Inevitably he would be arrested, with the Gestapo coming on February 17 1941. He would then be transferred to Auschwitz within 3 months, as prisoner #16670. At the end of July of the same year, three prisoners managed to escape from the camp on foot, and the Germans were obviously enraged. In order to deter any further escape attempts, 10 chaps were chosen at random to be thrown into a cellar to starve to death. As they were being led away, one of the men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, would shout out in fear; ‘my wife, my children’ among other things. Upon hearing this, Kolbe offered to take his place. For whatever reason, maybe the difference in age between the two men and therefore working ability, the Nazis allowed this. Kolbe would take the place of Gajowniczek in the cellar to starve to death.

Just think about that for a moment.

After two weeks, the Nazi soldiers would go to the cellar to, for want of a better word, clean up. What they found would astound them. They found nine dead bodies and one still living, kneeling in the middle of the room. This man was Raymund Kolbe. He had managed to survive two weeks without food or water or anything else, which is pretty bloody insane. The Nazis were obviously shocked, and the decision was made to execute Kolbe on the spot. He was injected with carbolic acid, and on August 14th 1941, Raymund Kolbe died. The cell where he died is now something a shrine. Gajowniczek would live to be 95 year olds.

A lot of us have said at some point in our lives that we would die for someone we love. I doubt that is literally true of 99.9% of us. Raymund Kolbe died in place of a complete stranger. Choosing to die is incredibly dumb, but this level of humanity is way above my understanding. Incredible really.