St. Maximilian Kolbe: Some Lessons

The great saint was a pastor to the end


History Virtue

Seventy-two years ago today, St. Maximilian Kolbe was murdered by a poison injection at Auschwitz, after about two weeks in a starvation bunker. Most probably on August 15 — the feast of she to whom he was devoted — his emaciated body went up in smoke through Auschwitz’s crematorium chimney.

Reflecting on his life, consider these four thoughts:

St. Maximilian Kolbe gives us a lesson in true “accompaniment.” St. Paul tells us that love is proven when one “might” be willing to die for a righteous man (Rm 5:7-10). When Kolbe stepped out of line to volunteer to go in place of Franciszek Gajowniczek to the starvation bunker, he didn’t even know the man. He went because the man bewailed leaving his wife and family. Kolbe offered himself as a substitution and provided pastoral care to nine other dying men until he was the only man left down there to kill.

St. Maximilian Kolbe gives us a lesson in family values. He offered himself for a unknown man who did not want to leave his wife and family and who, as a result, lived until 1995. Our society, by contrast, denigrates marriage and families.

St. Maximilian Kolbe’s body was reduced to ashes. The Nazis burned bodies because it was “efficient” and because it denigrated the subject. Kolbe was literally “wiped off the earth.” Burning bodies was always viewed in Christian circles as pagan, perhaps justified in extreme situations (pandemics or no burial space). Today, however, Catholics engage in cremation at rates no different than the broader society, out of a more pedestrian motive: it’s cheap.

St. Maximilian Kolbe’s death in Auschwitz reminds us that the German extermination program against civilians was broader than just Jews. While Jews were specially targeted, our tendency to focus on the Jewish Holocaust tends to consign the Germans’ other civilian victims to non-memory. Auschwitz’s first inmates were Polish political prisoners, and Kolbe was dispatched before the Holocaust of European Jewry reached its ultimate, furious apogee.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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