Rajmund Kolbe was born on 8 January 1894 in Zduńska Wola, in the Kingdom of Poland, which was then part of the Russian Empire. He was the second son of weaver Julius Kolbe and midwife Maria Dąbrowska. His father was an ethnic German and his mother was Polish. He had four brothers. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Pabianice.
Kolbe's life was strongly influenced in 1906, when he was 12, by a vision of the Virgin Mary. He later described this incident:
That night I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked me if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both.
In 1907, Kolbe and his elder brother Francis joined the Conventual Franciscans. They enrolled at the Conventual Franciscan minor seminary in Lwow later that year. In 1910, Kolbe was allowed to enter the novitiate, where he was given the religious name Maximilian. He professed his first vows in 1911, and final vows in 1914, adopting the additional name of Maria (Mary).
Kolbe was sent to Rome in 1912, where he attended the Pontifical Gregorian University. He earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1915 there. From 1915 he continued his studies at the Pontifical University of St. Bonaventure, where he earned a doctorate in theology in 1919 or 1922 (sources vary). He was active in the consecration and entrustment to Mary. During his time as a student, he witnessed vehement demonstrations against Popes St. Pius X and Benedict XV in Rome during an anniversary celebration by the Freemasons. According to Kolbe,
They placed the black standard of the "Giordano Brunisti" under the windows of the Vatican. On this standard the archangel, St. Michael, was depicted lying under the feet of the triumphant Lucifer. At the same time, countless pamphlets were distributed to the people in which the Holy Father (i.e., the Pope) was attacked shamefully.
Soon afterward, on 16 October 1917, Kolbe organized the Militia Immaculatae (Army of the Immaculate One), to work for conversion of sinners and enemies of the Catholic Church, specifically the Freemasons, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary. So serious was Kolbe about this goal that he added to the Miraculous Medal prayer:
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee. And for all those who do not have recourse to thee; especially the Masons and all those recommended to thee.
Maximilian Kolbe, on a West German postage stamp, marked Auschwitz
In 1918, Kolbe was ordained a priest. In July 1919 he returned to Poland, which was newly independent. He was active in promoting the veneration of the Immaculate Virgin Mary. He was strongly opposed to leftist – in particular, communist – movements.
From 1919 to 1922 he taught at the
Kraków seminary. Around that time, as well as earlier in Rome, he suffered from tuberculosis, which forced him to take a lengthy leave of absence from his teaching duties. TB was generally considered fatal, with rest and good nutrition the best treatment, as antibiotics had not been developed to treat it.
In January 1922 Kolbe founded the monthly periodical Rycerz Niepokalanej (Knight of the Immaculata), a devotional publication based on French
Le Messager du Coeur de Jesus (Messenger of the Heart of Jesus). From 1922 to 1926 he operated a religious publishing press in Grodno. As his activities grew in scope, in 1927 he founded a new Conventual Franciscan monastery at Niepokalanów near Warsaw; it became a major religious publishing centre. A junior seminary was opened there two years later.
Missionary work in Asia
Between 1930 and 1936, Kolbe undertook a series of missions to East Asia. He arrived first in Shanghai, China, but failed to gather a following there. Next, he moved to Japan, whereby 1931 he had founded a Franciscan Monastery, Mugenzai no Sono, on the outskirts of Nagasaki.
Kolbe had started publishing a Japanese edition of the Knight of the Immaculata (Seibo no Kishi). The monastery he founded remains prominent in the Roman Catholic Church in Japan. Kolbe had the monastery built on a mountainside. According to Shinto beliefs, this was not the side best suited to be in harmony with nature. However, when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, the Franciscan monastery survived, unlike the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, because it was on the side of the mountain which took the main force of the blast.
In mid-1932 Kolbe left Japan for Malabar, India, where he founded another monastery. This one closed after a while.
Return to Poland
Meanwhile, in his absence the monastery at Niepokalanów began to publish a daily newspaper, Mały Dziennik (the Small Daily), in alliance with a fascist far-right political group, the National Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo Radykalny). This publication reached a circulation of 137,000, and nearly double that, 225,000 on weekends. Poor health forced Kolbe to return to Poland in 1936. Two years later, in 1938, he started a radio station at Niepokalanów, Radio Niepokalanów. He held an amateur radio licence, with the call sign SP3RN.
Death at Auschwitz
Saint Maximilian Kolbe's prison cell in Block 11
, Auschwitz concentration camp
After the outbreak of World War II, Kolbe was one of the few friars who remained in the monastery, where he organized a temporary hospital. After the town was captured by the Germans, he was arrested by them on 19 September 1939 but released on 8 December. He refused to sign the Deutsche Volksliste, which would have given him rights similar to those of German citizens, in exchange for recognizing his ethnic German ancestry. Upon his release he continued work at his friary, where he and other friars provided shelter to refugees from Greater Poland, including 2,000 Jews whom he hid from German persecution in the Niepokalanów friary. Kolbe received permission to continue publishing religious works, though significantly reduced in scope. The monastery continued to act as a publishing house, issuing a number of anti-Nazi German publications.
On 17 February 1941, the monastery was shut down by the German authorities. That day Kolbe and four others were arrested by the German Gestapo and imprisoned in the Pawiak prison. On 28 May, he was transferred to Auschwitz as prisoner 16670.
Stained glass window by Alois Plum
depicting Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe
Continuing to act as a priest, Kolbe was subjected to violent harassment, including beating and lashings. Once he was smuggled to a prison hospital by friendly inmates. At the end of July 1941, one prisoner escaped from the camp, 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!", Kolbe 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.