In early August, 1941, a prisoner escaped from Auschwitz. The camp's rule was that if one prisoner escaped, ten died in his place. All day the weak and underfed men from the escaped prisoner's block were made to stand in the sun without food and water. When the man was not found, a prison guard called out the names of ten men who were to die in his place. (The dreadful irony of the story is that the escaped prisoner was later found drowned in a camp latrine, so the terrible reprisals had been exercised without cause.)
When Sergeant Francis Gajowniczek heard his name called, he cried out, "Have mercy! I have a wife and children." But mercy was a commodity in short supply in Nazi death camps.
Into the gap stepped Fr. Maximilian Kolbe. He moved forward silently. Asked what he wanted, he replied, "I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children." Hesitating a moment in face of this noble gesture, Commandant Fritsch accepted the replacement. Maximilian and nine others were sent to starve to death. At the end of two weeks, only Fr. Kolbe and 3 others were alive; only Fr. Kolbe was still conscious.
One of the most heroic acts of the twentieth century reached its conclusion on this day, August 14, 1941, the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception. That is when the Franciscan friar, Maximilian Kolbe, lifted up his arm to receive a lethal injection of carbolic acid, as the cell block was needed for new prisoners. So it was that Father Maximilian Kolbe was executed at the age of forty-seven years, a martyr of charity. His body was removed to the crematorium, and without dignity or ceremony was disposed of, like hundreds of thousands who had gone before him, and hundreds of thousands more who would follow.