The sacrifices of these Catholics, both living and dead, were quietly remembered throughout Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to the infamous Auschwitz death camp. He prayed at length in the prison cell where St. Maximilian had been kept during his incarceration. He also greeted a group known as the “Righteous among the Nations” — non-Jewish men and women who had risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazi extermination.
According to several biographies, the young St. Maximilian had been personally called to martyrdom by the Virgin Mary. In his account, Mary came to him in an apparition holding two crowns, indicating for him to choose: one was white, representing purity, the other red, for martyrdom. He chose both.
Following the German invasion of Poland, St. Maximilian was arrested twice, first in 1939 and again in 1941, at which point he was sent to Auschwitz. That August, 10 prisoners were sentenced to death by starvation in punishment for another inmate’s escape. After hearing one of the men lament leaving behind his wife and children, Father Kolbe volunteered to die in his place.
Survivors of the camp testified that the starving prisoners could be heard praying and singing hymns, led by the priest. After two weeks, on the night before the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the camp officials decided to hasten Kolbe’s death, injecting him with carbolic acid. He was canonized 40 years later, on Oct. 10, 1982.
Edith Stein, known formally as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, is another martyr of the Auschwitz death camp. She was born into a Jewish family in Breslau, Poland, but abandoned her faith as a teenager. A brilliant academic, Stein advanced in a career in philosophy and studied under the likes of phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Influenced by the writings of St. Teresa of Ávila, she converted to Catholicism in 1922, and entered the disclaced Carmelite monastery 1933.
In 1942, Sister Teresa Benedicta was arrested along with her sister Rosa and the members of her religious community in retaliation against a protest letter by the Dutch bishops, which decried the Nazi treatment of Jews. It is believed that she perished in the Auschwitz gas chambers upon her arrival Aug. 9, 1942, along with her sister and the rest of the community.