Today is the memorial day of my beloved patron St. Maximilian Kolbe—the 67th anniversary of his martyrdom after volunteering to take the place of a condemned man at the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. The stranger whose life he saved lived to attend St. Maximilian's canonization by John Paul II.
The following account of an incident when St. Maximilian was imprisoned by the Nazis (prior to his being sent to Auschwitz) is from Patricia Treece's biography of St. Maximilian Kolbe, A Man for Others (Marytown Press, 1982):
Edward Gniadek was arrested by the Gestapo on January 12, 1941. In March, after being kept only in solitary confinement, he was put in a cell [at Warsaw's Pawiak prison] with a Jewish Pole he recalls only as Singer. He says:
After a few days, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe was added to our cell. He was wearing a Franciscan habit and was clean-shaven. The presence of Father Kolbe, who differed so greatly from us by his calm, the things he told us, and conversation with him, calmed me and had the best possible effect on my nerves, which were very bad since each day I lived under the anxiety of being interrogated again—I had not only been beaten but had witnessed the torture of others—or being sent to a concentration camp.
About the second or third day after Father Kolbe joined us, one of the Gestapo men looked into our cell. He rushed in, somehow infuriated by the sight of Kolbe in his habit, from which hung the usual Franciscan rosary with its crucifix. I saw everything, but it was Singer afterwards who gave me the exact words, for I know no German.
The Scharfuhrer [platoon leader]—that was his rank—grabbed the rosary and, jerking on it, began haranguing Father Kolbe, who made no reply. Then the man pointed scornfully to the crucifix and snarled, "Do you believe in that?"
"Yes, I believe," Father Kolbe answered him serenely.
Aroused to a fever pitch,the assailant slapped the priest hard in the face. He grabbed the crucifix, again demanding, "You really believe, eh?"
"Yes, I believe," Father Kolbe answered calmly.
With each affirmation, the SS man became angrier and more violent (I don't know—maybe it was the priest's calm and determination). Anyway, after each reply he struck Father Kolbe in the face again and again.
But finally, seeing that Father Kolbe could not be shaken, he gave up and stomped angrily from the cell, slamming the door.
I must say again that, during everything, Father Kolbe showed not the slightest agitation. After the Scharfuhrer left, he simply began walking to and fro in the cell, praying silently. On his face were the red marks of the blows. My nerves were very shaken by what had happened and I said something—I can't remember what. He turned to me and said, "Please, I beg you, don't be upset; you have a lot of worries and troubles of your own. What happened just now is really nothing because it's all for my little mother" (he meant the Mother of God). The way he said this you would actually have thought nothing at all had happened.
That same day, one of the lower-ranking guards who was Polish came in with a prisoner's uniform, recommending that Father Kolbe put it on. He said that if Father Maximilian had been wearing the uniform, he would never have been beaten. Lots of prisoners wore their own clothes, but the religious habit drove the Nazis into a frenzy and provoked such incidents.