The Franciscan friar, Maximilian Mary Kolbe, died in the Auschwitz concentration camp on August 14, 1941. Two weeks earlier, a prisoner had gone missing. The commandant, Karl Fristsch, announced the penalty to the entire camp: ten men would die in the starvation bunker. As his name was called, Franciszek Gajowniczek cried out, “My wife, my children!” Father Maximilian stepped forward and offered to take his place. He and the other nine men were tossed naked into a concrete hole in Building 13.
Francixzek Gajowniczek is pictured below at the canonization of Maximilian Kolbe. The saint saved his life and he was privileged to be a part of the canonization
The camp prisoners waited to hear the howls of anguish coming from the bunker. Instead, they heard feeble voices raised in prayer and hymns of praise. Maximilian was encouraging the men. A Pole assigned to serve at the bunker later told how at each inspection the priest was always in the middle of them, standing or kneeling in prayer. After two weeks, only Maximilian remained alive. When the SS men entered the cell, he offered his arm for their lethal injection.
One prisoner later said his death was “a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength…It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp.” Maximilian is a patron of families, for he gave his life for the father of a family. He is a patron of prisoners, for he gave hope to the condemned. —Lisa Lickona, The Magnificat Year of Mercy Companion, page 320 Maximillian Kolbe died August 14, 1941.
Father Richard Kunst
About the First Class Relic of St. Maximilian Kolbe
How does one come to have a first class relic of a saint who died a martyr’s death in Auschwitz? Of all the relics in Father Kunst’s Collection, perhaps this one is the most incredible.
This is a first-class relic, in the form of hairs from his head and beard, preserved without his knowledge by two friars at Niepolkalanow who served as barbers in his friary between 1930 and 1941. Without his knowledge (and permission) they saved this hair knowing of his great holiness. His instructions were to burn it.
When he left the barber shop, they removed this hair from the stove and preserved it, the only first class relics of this saint.
Since his beatification in 1971, these relics have been distributed around the world for public veneration.
Second-class relics, such as his personal effects, clothing and liturgical vestments, are preserved in his monastery cell and in a chapel at Niepokalanow and may be viewed by the faithful who visit.
Please listen to Father Kunst’s story about this artifact and how it came to be.
About the First Class Relic of St. Maximilian Kolbe
A Second Version of This Story
The body of Maximilian was cremated but there are relics. How is this possible?
Niepokalanów being the largest friary and printing center in the world, had its own generator for electricity, a central telephone system, livestock, crops, bread bakery, dentistry– the list goes on and on. Among these was, of course, a barbershop. A “razor short,” no-fuss hair style was a must.
Beards were allowed only for missionaries. Franciscan Conventuals were mostly clean shaven men.
Maximilian went regularly to the barbershop like the rest. One day when it was his turn, he noticed that the friar barber was about to take a fresh cutting cape for him, and he asked why. When he was told that they usually change for priests, Saint Maximilian insisted that no distinction be made between priests and lay friars since all are brothers, and one cutting cape for everyone would be fine.
The archives still have the electric shaver that was used to cut and trim Maximilian’s hair.
Before he left for his second trip to Japan (he traveled back and forth to Poland two times between 1930 -1936), Maximilian had his growing beard trimmed and hair cut by Brother Kamil Banaszek on August 12, 1930. Brother Kamil discretely kept it in an envelope because of his personal admiration of this man who many considered very holy.
Brother Zenobiusz Gacek found this envelope in 1952 while organizing the archives, and he swore with his hand on the Bible that this was true. The handwriting on the envelope was compared with other writings of Brother Kamil and confirmed to be authentic.
This document was signed in 1961 by two other friars (archivists, Brother Innocenty Wójcik and Brother Arnold Wędrowski) and by the Father Guardian, Izydor Kożbiał of Niepokalanów. The hair was placed in a jar and used for relics for public veneration.
(Since his beatification in 1971, these first class relics were distributed to churches and institutes in Poland and other countries throughout the world).
There is yet another sealed jar filled with the long beard Maximilian had grown as a missionary in Japan and was kept while in Niepokalanow until the first days of WW II on September 5, 1939. Father Provincial, Maurycy Madzurek, advised Saint Maximilian to shave his beard to avoid easy recognition and eventual problems with the occupying Germans. Also he had to have a clean shaven face for the photo identification papers which the Germans required.
After shaving Saint Maximilian, Brother Kamil Banaszek discreetly saved the beard because of pietism. Before dying in 1945, Brother Kamil gave this treasure to Brother Gabriel Siemiński, who testifies to the truth of this. It was given to the archives in 1946. This also is documented and signed like the above.
A small jar with some hair of Saint Maximilian cut by Brother Arkursy Pruszak in December, 1940, was also kept because of pietism and years later was given by this same brother to the archives.
In 1967 he signed and documented this with Brother Innocenty Wójcik and Father Guardian Jerzy Domański of Niepokalanów.
Saint Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us.
A Letter of Dismissal Signed by St. Maximilian Kolbe
Considered to Be Among the Rarer Autographs of the 20th Century
The artifact is a letter signed by Father Maximilian Kolbe. It concerns the dismissal of an employee and was signed on March 14, 1939.
The letter includes a redaction seal and is considered to be one of the rarer signatures in the 20th century.
“It is among the rarer autographs of 20th century personages, primarily due to the fact that Kolbe did not gain notoriety till decades after his death.” —Fr. Richard Kunst
The Papal Artifacts’ Collection is fortunate to have obtained, not only his First Class relic, but also, now, his signature.
Translation of the Letter
Center: The Little Diary, Publication of the Knights of the Immaculata
Left upper corner: Headquarter: Niepokalanów
Right upper corner: addresses of local branches
Niepokalanow, March 14, 1939
Since, in your letter dated February 27th 1939, delivered to us on March 1st of the current year, you have offended your employer, according to the par. 32 of regulations of employment contract for administrative (white collar) workers, we dismiss (fire) you from work today (with immediate effect).
Fr. Maximilian Kolbe (original: O. Maksymilian Kolbe)
The Little Diary’s editor in chief
Papal Artifacts highly recommends this biography of St. Maximilian Kolbe. Ignatius Press has said of it,
The famous French author’s unique writing style captivates the reader with the heroic story of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, a modern apostle of Catholic evangelization, Marian spirituality, and a martyr of charity. With the encouragement of Pope John Paul II and the help of documentation (some unpublished) given to him by the Vatican, Frossard chronicles the dramatic and moving life of this Polish Franciscan who volunteered to die in place of a fellow prisoner in Auschwitz.
While his heroic martyr’s death is well known, Frossard shows how Kolbe’s whole life was one of extraordinary generosity in devotion to his ideal of “love without limits.” Kolbe was that rare combination of mystic, intellectual genius, theologian, and down-to-earth practicality. His tremendous creative energies (despite constant bouts of tuberculosis and less than one lung) enhanced the lives of all those who knew him, the millions who read his publications, and the countless persons inspired by his example. Forget Not Love reveals the interesting and impressive details of Kolbe’s childhood, vision of Mary, brilliance in his studies, his founding of the largest monastery in the world (700 Franciscans), massive printing apostolate, missionary journeys to Japan, and his final act of love in Auschwitz. Frossard has captured the heart of the man whom Pope John Paul II declared “the patron saint of this difficult century.”