When innocent prisoner #5659 was about to be placed in Cell Block #13, the worst of all tortures prior to the invention of the gas chambers, prisoner #16670 volunteered to take his place. Stunned at the unprecedented request, the commandant acquiesced. The man who volunteered was a Roman Catholic priest, Maximilian Kolbe.
Kolbe and ten others went to cell block #13. The Nazis denied the prisoners water and food, and they forced them to stand, hunched over, naked, in the dark. Their captors hoped to induce the prisoners to madness. Instead, Kolbe talked of hope to the men, and, rather than madness, joy ensued.
Infuriated, the commandant ordered the men injected with carbolic acid on August 14, 1941. When the first doctor approached Kolbe to inject him, Kolbe simply lifted his arm and continued to pray. Severely rattled by Kolbe’s faith and composure, the translator fled. When he returned after the injection to remove Kolbe’s body, he was stunned at what he found: “When I opened the iron door, Father Kolbe was no longer alive. His face had an unusual radiance about it. The eyes were wide open and focused on some definite point. His entire person seemed to have been in a state of ecstasy. I will never forget that scene as long as I live.”
John Paul II called Auschwitz the “Golgotha of the modern world. . . . built for the negation of faith—faith in God and faith in man. . . . [meant] to trample radically not only on love but on all signs of human dignity, of humanity . . . . built on hatred and contempt for man in the name of a crazed ideology.”
In Poland, John Paul II told an audience that St. Max Kolbe points the way for all struggle against evil: “victory through faith and love.”