Saint Maximillian Kolbe (1894 – 1941), was born in Poland, one of 5 children, and was given the baptismal name of Raymond. His father was a weaver and his mother, a midwife. He was a normal child, sometimes well behaved and at others mischievous. It was in one such instance of mischief that after having received a correction from his mother he underwent a profound change for the better. He later explained that that night he got on his knees and asked Our Lady what would become of him. She then appeared to him holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked if he was willing to accept either of those crowns. The white one meant that he would persevere in purity, and the red that he would become a martyr. He answered that he accepted both. Thus, from an early age his focus turned to the spiritual life and to the work of God.
Following the path shown him by Our Lady, some years later he joined the Conventual Franciscans and chose for himself the name Maximillian. He was ordained a priest in 1914, and later obtained two doctorate degrees, one in Philosophy and the other in Theology. Saint Maximillian promoted the veneration of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, founded and supervised the monastery of Niepokalanów, near Warsaw, operated an amateur radio station, and founded several other organizations and publications. In 1930, he travelled to Nagasaki, Japan, and founded the monastery of Mugenzai no Sono (the Garden of the Immaculate). The location of the monastery was providential. It stood on the slope of a hill facing away from the city so that when the atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki in World War II, the only damage suffered by the structure were some chattered windows. In 1936 he was recalled to Poland.
With the outset of the war, many fugitives from the Nazi regime sought refuge at his monastery. St Maximillian, along with the other friars, helped thousands of them, most of whom were Jews.
In 1941, St Maximillian was arrested for his work protecting refugees. Already in the first prison he was placed, he was singled out for special ill treatment. One SS guard after seeing him holding a rosary asked him if he believed in Christ, to which he answered, “I do”. The guard then hit him. The SS man repeated his question several times and receiving always the same answer went on beating him mercilessly.
From this prison, St Maximillian was sent to the concentration camp of Auschwitz. Here again he was singled out for ill treatment by one of the guards who especially hated him. When his fellow prisoners would come to his aid after he had received a beating, unwilling to expose them to the danger of a reprisal by part of the guards he would tell them, “Mary gives me strength. All will be well”. In July 31, 1941, a prisoner from his cellblock escaped. The commander of the camp then randomly picked ten men to suffer death by starvation as both punishment and deterrent. When one of the men chosen let out a groan of despair, Saint Maximilian offered to die in his place. His offer was accepted and he was placed, along with the nine other men, in a cell in an underground bunker, where they were left to starve, being given neither food nor water. According to an eyewitness, unlike the despair that could be heard coming from the other starvation cells, the one holding St Maximillian echoed with the sound of the rosary, other prayers, and singing. After two weeks, only Father Kolbe was still alive. He was then killed with an injection of carbolic acid.
Saint Maximillian was canonized by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1982, and is one of ten 20th-century martyrs who are depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey.