Franciszek Gajowniczek (15 November 1901 – 13 March 1995) was a Polish army sergeant whose life was saved from the Nazis when (the later Sainted) Maximilian Kolbe offered to die in Gajowniczek's place. Gajowniczek had been sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp for aiding the Jewish resistance in Poland.
Gajowniczek and Kolbe were both prisoners in 1941 at Auschwitz when a prisoner appeared to have escaped. Sub-Commandant Karl Fritzsch ordered that ten other prisoners die by starvation in reprisal. Franciszek Gajowniczek was one of those selected. When the Franciscan priest Kolbe heard Gajowniczek cry, "My poor wife! My poor children! What will they do?" Kolbe offered himself instead. Kolbe's exact words have been forgotten, but one version records his words as, "I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children." The switch was permitted; after all his cellmates died, Kolbe was put to death with an injection of carbolic acid.
Gajowniczek was sent from Auschwitz to another camp on 25 October 1944 and after spending five years, five months, and nine days in Nazi camps was liberated by the Allies. Though his wife, Helena, survived the war, his sons were killed in a Soviet bombardment of Nazi-occupied Poland in 1945, before his release.
Pope Paul VI beatified Maximilian Kolbe in 1971; for the occasion, Gajowniczek was a guest of the Pope. In 1972, Time magazine reported that over 150,000 made a pilgrimage to Auschwitz to honor the anniversary of Maximilian's beatification. One of the first to speak was Gajowniczek, who declared "I want to express my thanks, for the gift of life." His wife, Helena, died in 1977. Gajowniczek was again a guest of the Pope when Maximilian Kolbe was canonized by John Paul II on 10 October 1982.
In 1994, Gajowniczek visited the St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church of Houston, where he told his translator Chaplain Thaddeus Horbowy that "so long as he ... has breath in his lungs, he would consider it his duty to tell people about the heroic act of love by Maximilian Kolbe." Gajowniczek died in the Polish city of Brzeg (formerly Brieg in German Silesia) on 13 March 1995, slightly more than 53 years after having his life spared by Kolbe. He was survived by his second wife, Janina.
- David Binder. "Franciszek Gajowniczek Dead; Priest Died for Him at Auschwitz", The New York Times, March 15, 1995.
- Many stories report that the prisoner actually drowned in the latrines, but he was believed to have escaped.
- "Maximilian Kolbe", Jewish Virtual Library
- "Pilgrim in Poland", Time, October 30, 1972