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The Red Crown and the White

Maximilian Kolbe, the Saint of Auschwitz

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To explore our understanding of self-sacrifice (SEAL theme: Motivation).

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and two readers.

  • You will also need two paper crowns, one white and one red.


Leader: Were you mischievous when you were younger? Most boys and girls are at some point. Raymund Kolbe certainly was . . .

Reader 1: Raymund was born in Poland in 1894, the son of a poor weaver. Following one incident of mischievous behaviour, for which he received a justifiable scolding, Raymund fell asleep. While he slept, he had a dream. In the dream, Mary, the mother of Jesus, came to him and offered him two crowns. One crown was white, and the other was red. Mary said that the white crown would help him to live a life in which he was good, and the red crown meant that he would become a martyr, someone who died for the sake of a cause. When he was offered a choice, Raymund chose both crowns.

Leader: As he grew older, Raymund felt that his life should be lived as part of the church. He became a Franciscan monk and took on a religious name, Maximilian. He was an important teacher who opened monasteries in Poland, Japan and India. In 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, Kolbe was back in his home country. Under his leadership, the monastery near Warsaw became a shelter for refugees, most of whom were Jewish. It wasn’t long before the Nazi authorities arrested Kolbe and his fellow priests and sent them to the death camp at Auschwitz.

Reader 2: Conditions for prisoners at Auschwitz were awful, yet Maximilian adopted a life in which he served those around him. He allowed others to take the meagre rations of food placed before him and shared with others the little he was able to get. Each night, he moved from inmate to inmate, asking what he might do for them, particularly as a priest. He taught them to forgive their guards and to overcome the evil around them with good. When he was beaten and tortured, he prayed for those who were hurting him. Yet his most important act was still to come.

Leader: One day, three prisoners disappeared from Auschwitz, and the camp commandant ordered that ten men should be starved to death in an underground bunker in retribution. One of the ten was a young man who was distraught at the thought of leaving his young family. Maximilian stepped forward and offered to take his place, which the commandant accepted.

On 14 August 1941, after two weeks of starvation, Maximilian Kolbe died. He had become a martyr. The story of his actions spread through the camp. One prisoner described it as ‘like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp’. The young man who was saved lived to see the end of the war and was reunited with his wife. He died in 1995, at the age of 93.

Time for reflection

Leader: Christians believe that, in the same way that Maximilian Kolbe gave his life for the sake of another, likewise Jesus gave his life for the sake of others. Jesus choice became an example for all those who follow him, including Father Maximilian. Christians do not believe that Jesus calls us all to be martyrs, but they do believe that Jesus wants us to live a life of self-sacrifice, by putting the needs of others before our own needs. So how might that pan out for you and me? Ive thought of just three ways, but I’m sure you will be able to think of many more!

Reader 1: A simple way to start is to think about the phrase, ‘After you’. Do you dislike queues? Most of us do. We want to get to the front, to have our turn without a wait, particularly if theres a chance that the opportunity wont last. However, even when he was hungry, Father Maximilian allowed others to go before him. Self-sacrifice is not about merely taking the place that we are given, but also being gracious enough to allow others ahead of us, particularly when they are younger, less able or less dominant.

Reader 2: A second way to be self-sacrificing is to accept the blame without question when we are guilty. Others may also be involved and try to deny their guilt, but hopefully, our example would have an effect on others, so justice would be done.

Reader 1: Finally, we can show self-sacrifice by developing an attitude where the needs of others are put before our own needs. In Auschwitz, Father Maximilian went around asking a simple question, ‘What can I do for you?’

Why not try that today? Before saying anything about ourselves, why not ask how someone else is feeling? Before looking at what we can get out of a situation, why not ask what anyone else needs? Rather than thinking about ourselves as we go around school, why not look around at others, spot the lonely, the unhappy and the nervous, and ask what we can do to help. It's an outward-looking rather than inward-looking attitude.

Take out the two crowns and offer them to students.

I wonder if you’d accept the white crown and be a sensitive, hard-working, good student?
I wonder if you’d accept the red crown and be willing to be self-sacrificing?
I wonder how many of you would, like Father Maximilian, accept both?

Dear Lord,
Thank you for the opportunities in community life to help one another.
May we be sensitive in spotting the opportunities and active in taking them up.


‘Reach out (Ill be there)’ by the Four Tops

Publication date: November 2016   (Vol.18 No.11)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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