Saints do not seem the stuff of the 20th century, being more often holy pictures in a children's book, suffused with a luminous glow. But they are real enough to Franciszek Gajowniczek, for in the unholy place called Auschwitz, a man whom the Catholic church has declared a saint saved his life.
Gajowniczek was a Polish soldier then, one of thousands in Auschwitz in 1941, and he was condemned to death. A man in his cell had escaped and as retribution the German command decided to kill 10 men -- by starvation.
The selection was arbitrary. As he heard his name called, the 41-year-old soldier could not help but cry out for his wife and children. Seconds later, a Polish Franciscan monk stepped from the line -- an action for which he might have been shot on the spot -- and asked, in perfect German, for a favor.
"I want to die in place of this prisoner," the monk is believed to have said. "I have no wife and no children. Besides, I'm old and not good for anything."
The request was granted. The priest, 48, was taken away to be slowly starved to death. But he survived for days, leading the other condemned men in prayer. On the 15th day, the Nazis, needing the cell for other prisoners, killed him by injecting carbolic acid into his veins.
On Oct. 10 this year in Rome, the priest, Maximilian Kolbe, was canonized and proclaimed St. Maximilian.
Sunday, the official American celebration for the saint is being marked with a special mass here in St. Patrick's Cathedral. As part of that celebration, Gajowniczek will walk in a procession carrying a reliquary with a strand of Kolbe's hair.
That there are any relics is somewhat miraculous in itself. Like the other prisoners, Kolbe was cremated after he was killed. But long before he was sent to Auschwitz, his barber, knowing that Kolbe was a holy man, had saved a lock of his hair.
Before his imprisonment, Maximilian Kolbe had founded a large Franciscan friary outside Warsaw called Niepokalanow -- Mary's City. Deeply committed to reaching people, he also founded a magazine called "Knight of the Immaculata" which at its peak reached more than 300,000 believers.
The magazine, however, is at the root of a controversy that recently emerged regarding Kolbe. Accusations have come from some Jewish communities that the priest, like so many of his countrymen during the '30s, was an anti-Semite.
In the magazine's first issue in 1926, Kolbe described Freemasons as "an organized clique of fanatical Jews who want to destroy the church."
In 1934, he spoke out against the removal of Jews from the economic life of Poland -- an action, some felt, that made him, for his times, a political moderate.
But five years later, arguing once more against the "criminal mafia that calls itself Freemasonry" as well as "atheistic communism," Kolbe said he did not mean to say that "even among the Jews one cannot find good people."
Anti-Semitism, however, was not observed by Gajowniczek who, accompanied by the Rev. James McCurry, a Franciscan father, discussed Kolbe today at a Queens friary.
When he was in Auschwitz in 1941, he did not know any Jews, Gajowniczek said, and never heard Kolbe speak of them. In the concentration camp, where you might wake to find the man beside you murdered in the night, Kolbe stood out, Gajowniczek said.
At Auschwitz, he said, one liter of water had to be shared among four men, and that it was not uncommon to hear of 1,000 men being sent out to work in the morning but only 500 returning at night.
Kolbe "was recognized as a good Pole and as a good priest," Gajowniczek said through a translator. "He prayed -- this was in secret -- he heard confession and gave absolution. He shared the smallest piece of bread . . . even while he was living, the people around him referred to him as a saint."
Gajowniczek can only theorize why Kolbe spoke out on his behalf and not for the lives of any of the other nine men that day, Aug. 4, 1941. He thinks perhaps it is because Kolbe was in his row and heard him cry out for his family--and that was enough.
When asked if he believes Kolbe would have made the sacrifice had he not been a Catholic, but a Jew, Gajowniczek became irritated. "How can I know this?" he replied.
McCurry addressed the question of whether Kolbe was anti-Semitic, a question that clearly concerns him.
"I'm very distrustful about that," he said. "I even went to Rome to see the archives and I've never seen any anti-Semitism with my own eyes . . . . I would say, let the facts speak for themselves.
"In the late 1930s, Father Kolbe took a very strong pro-life stance against Nazi genocide in the magazine. He used the hospital at his community for Jewish families.
"Also, Mr. Gajowniczek is wrong about something. There were Jews at Auschwitz at the time Kolbe was there. One was a 14-year-old boy . . . . He now lives in Wilmington, Del. He lost 58 members of his family and Kolbe found him, wandering around Auschwitz. He has said he owes his sanity to Kolbe.
"He has also said that he has no doubt that whether it was a Gentile or a Jew, Kolbe would have saved his life."