No one would debate that injustice of Francis' death sentence. He was, after all, a prisoner in Auschwitz. No one would look there for justice. But the particular level of injustice is remarkable. The camp had a standing rule regarding escape -- ten prisoners would be starved to death for every prisoner who escaped. Failing to notice that a prisoner had drowned in the latrine, the guards dutifully reported one absence from roll call. Camp Kommandant Karl Fritsch then selected ten men to lock in a starvation cell, one of whom was young Francis Gajowniczek.
A Polish priest named Maximilian Kolbe stepped up and asked to take his place, noting that he was old (forty-seven) and unmarried while Francis was a young father. Kommandant Fritsch stared at him, and then asked, "What does this Polish pig want?" Father Kolbe repeated his request. Herr Fritsch assented and the ten men were hustled off to Building 13, where they were locked in a cell and given no food or water until all were dead.
As a child, Raymond Kolbe did not seem destined for the priesthood. His dad had been a weaver and operated a religious bookstore until he joined the Polish rebellion, only to be hanged by the Russians as a traitor. His mom, also a weaver and Franciscan tertiary like her husband, eventually became a nun. But Raymond was a reckless child, until around age twelve when he had prayed to the Virgin Mary and received a vision in response. As he told it,
I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both.
The monastery was dispersed by Nazis in 1939, though he and a few brothers remained. Three thousand refugees, 2000 of whom were Jewish, were housed there until the friars were arrested for continuing to print anti-Nazi sentiments. Saint Maximilian was transferred to Auschwitz on May 28, 1941. Prisoner 16670, as he was thence called, continued to offer religious services to fellow internees in spite of the beatings and abuse he received right up until the day in July when he asked to take Francis Gajowniczek's place in the starvation cell. He outlived his companions in the cell, eventually forcing the guards to administer a lethal injection because they had ten more prisoners to lock in there.