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It’s difficult to find beauty in death. It’s even more difficult to find beauty in a death camp. Especially Auschwitz. Four million Jews died there in World War II. A half-ton of human hair is still preserved. The showers that sprayed poison gas still stand.

But for all the ugly memories of Auschwitz there is one of beauty. It’s the memory Gajowniczek has of Maximilian Kolbe. In February 1941 Kolbe was incarcerated at Auschwitz. He was a Franciscan priest. In the harshness of the slaughterhouse he maintained the gentleness of Christ. He shared his food. He gave up his bunk. He prayed for his captors. He was soon given the nickname “Saint of Auschwitz”.

In July of that same year there was an escape from the prison. It was the custom at Auschwitz to kill ten prisoners for every one who escaped. All the prisoners would be gathered in the courtyard, and the commandant would randomly select ten names from the roll book. These victims would be immediately taken to a cell where they would receive no food or water until they died.

The commandant begins calling the names. At each selection another prisoner steps forward to fill the sinister quota. The tenth name he calls is Gajowniczek. As the SS officers check the numbers of the condemned, one of the condemned begins to sob. “My wife and my children,” he weeps. The officers turn as they hear movement among the prisoners. The guards raise their rifles. The dogs tense, anticipating a command to attack. A prisoner has left his row and is pushing his way to the front.

It’s Kolbe. No fear on his face. No hesitancy in his step. The capo shouts at him to stop or be shot. “ I want to talk to the commander,” he says calmly. For some reason the officer doesn’t club or kill him. Kolbe stops a few paces from the commandant, removes his hat, and looks the German officer in the eye.

“Herr Commandant, I wish to make a request, please.”

That no one shot him is a miracle.

“I want to die in the place of this prisoner.” He points at the sobbing Gajowniczek. The audacious request is presented without stammer. “I have no wife and children. Besides, I am old and not good for anything. He’s in better condition.” Kolbe knew well the Nazi mentality.

“Who are you?” the officer asks.

“A Catholic priest.”

The block is stunned. The commandant, uncharacteristically speechless. After a moment, he barks, “Request granted.”

Prisoners were never allowed to speak. Gajowniczek says, “I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me-a stranger. Is this some dream?”

The Saint of Auschwitz outlived the other nine. In fact, he didn’t die of thirst or of starvation. He died only after the camp doctor injected phenol into his heart. It was August 14,1941.

Gajowniczek survived the Holocaust. He made his way back to his hometown. Every year, however, he goes back to Auschwitz. Every August 14 he goes back to say thank you to the man who died in his place.

In his backyard there is a plaque. A plaque he carved with his own hands. A tribute to Maximilian Kolbe – the man who died so he could live. (Six Hours One Friday; Max Lucado)

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