In the Camp with Maximilian

He was there. He saw it all.

I noticed him right away. The dark eyes of a very old man gazed at me intensely from the second row, as I performed the story of Maximilian: Saint of Auschwitz in Chicago.

After the show, he pulled me aside, rolled up his sleeve and showed me the number tattooed on his arm.

“I was in the Auschwitz concentration camp with Maximilian Kolbe. I knew him, for we were in the same block,” he told me.

“When a prisoner escaped, the Nazi commandant made us all stand for hours in the scorching summer sun. He made his way through the ranks, choosing 10 victims at random to die in the starvation bunker.

“He stopped and looked directly at me and I froze in terror. But the man right behind me thought the commandant had looked at him, and he stepped out. My life was spared.

“Finally, he pointed to Francis Gajowniczek. My wife, my children – I will never see them again,' I heard him sob. We were all stunned at what happened next. “Father Maximilian stepped forward. ‘I will take his place,’ he told the shocked commandant, ‘I am old and useless.’

“Then he was taken away with the rest of the victims to die. For the next four years, all of us in the camp shielded Francis, so that Father Max’s sacrifice might not be in vain.”

As he spoke to me, tears were rolling down the old man’s face. “The performance I just saw, it’s all true. I was there. I saw it all. Thank you,” he whispered to me before he slipped away into the crowd.

In my living room hangs a wooden carving of Saint Maximilian. Who do you think signed the back of it? Francis Gajowniczek, the very man whose life he saved.