Eighty years ago today St Maximilian Mary Kolbe offered his life to save that of Franciszek Gajowniczek.
At the end of July 1941, one prisoner had escaped from Auschwitz, prompting SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the deputy camp commander, to pick ten men to be starved to death in an underground bunker to deter further escape attempts. When one of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, "My wife! My children!". St Maximilian volunteered to take his place.
According to an eyewitness, who was an assistant janitor at that time, in his prison cell, Kolbe led the prisoners in prayer. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After they had been starved and deprived of water for two weeks, only Kolbe remained alive.
The guards wanted the bunker emptied, so they gave Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Kolbe is said to have raised his left arm and calmly waited for the deadly injection. He died on 14 August. His remains were cremated on 15 August, the feast day of the Assumption of Mary.
Gajowniczek was present as a guest of Pope John Paul II, when St Maximilian was canonized on 10 October 1982.
In 1994, Gajowniczek visited St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church of Houston, Texas, 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 13 March 1995 at the age of 93. He was buried at a convent cemetery in Niepokalanów, the City of the Immaculate Mother of God, founded by St Maximilian, 53 years after having his life saved by Kolbe.