Introducing: Mary Kolbe

Mary Kolbe is not my real name. Like many writers past and present, I have chosen to have a ‘pen name’.

I am a high school teacher. I want to speak more about the challenges that teachers encounter from the different players of the education system in Australia.

In a lesson today, I spoke to my students about the actions of a man named Maximilian Kolbe. When I was younger, his story always stood out to me and I still like being able to talk about what he did. The thing that stayed with me and the reason I continue to tell his story is the events that led to his death.

Maximilian Kolbe writing; working on one of the many publications he wrote during his lifetime.

In 1941, Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest in Poland, was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to prison. After three months in prison, he was transferred to Auschwitz. One day the Nazis called twelve men forward to be executed for the escape of a prisoner — a message to the prisoners that they should never think of escaping*. The guards called out the numbers of these men randomly selected to die. When the number of one man was called out he began crying and pleading with the guards to not kill him; that he had a family and he begged them to let him live.

In that moment, Maximilian Kolbe spoke out (an action that could have resulted in him being shot on the spot) and asked to take the place of the man who was asking to be spared. The guards made the swap and because of Maximilian’s actions, that Jewish man survived Auschwitz and World War II. Maximilian and these men were sentenced to death by starvation. To keep up their morale, to comfort and support them, Maximilian prayed with them and talked with them and sang with them. At the end of the two weeks, Maximilian was still alive so the guards finally executed him with a lethal injection of hydrochloric acid.

There is so much to be said about Maximilian Kolbe and his actions. The man Maximilian saved through his actions lived to see Maximilian Kolbe made a saint of the Catholic Church in 1982. And while I still share his story whenever appropriate, today, it is his defiance against the Nazis in the years prior to his arrest that has inspired the use of his name in my nom de plume.

Franciszek Gajowniczek (left), man saved by Maximilian Kolbe. Pope John Paul II (right)

In addition to running a hospital and supporting refugees at the monastery, he also published a periodical called ‘Knights of the Immaculata’** (the Immaculata refers to Jesus’ mother Mary who is known as the Immaculate Conception). As Nazi occupation and oppression increased, he wrote other publications opposing the Nazis, and took to radio as well, speaking out against injustice.

I chose the name ‘Mary’ to join the name ‘Kolbe’ to complete my pen name in honour of Jesus’ mother (who has her own amazing story that I may share with you on another occasion). Mary’s main role within Catholicism is to point people to her Son, Jesus, and his teachings: that we should love one another. By total chance, I have adopted two of the three names that Maximilian Maria Kolbe (born Rajmund Kolbe) adopted when he became a priest. He too selected Mary (Maria) in honour of Mary, Jesus’ mother.

With the courage and determination inspired by the life of this Polish, Franciscan priest, I hope to support the cause of justice in education, for outcasts in society and for peace in the world.

*The man who had gone missing had not actually escaped, he was later found dead, drowned, in the toilets of the camp.

**The Knights of Immaculata still exist and continue to carry out the work that was founded by Maximilian Kolbe.

A high school teacher challenging the system and fighting injustices.