Franciszek Gajowniczek (November 15, 1901 – March 13, 1995) was a Polish army sergeant whose life was saved by priest St. Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to die in his place. Gajowniczek had been sent to Auschwitz concentration camp from Gestapo prison in Tarnów. He was captured while crossing the border with Slovakia after the defeat of the Modlin Fortress during the 1939 German invasion of Poland. Gajowniczek and Kolbe met as inmates of Auschwitz in May 1941.
Franciszek Gajowniczek, a Roman Catholic, was born in Strachomin near Mińsk Mazowiecki. He lived in Warsaw since 1921, and had a wife and two sons. He was a professional soldier who took part in the defence of Wieluń as well as Warsaw in September 1939. He was captured by the Gestapo in Zakopane. He arrived at Auschwitz on September 8, 1940. When a prisoner appeared to have escaped, Sub-Commandant Karl Fritzsch ordered that ten other prisoners die by starvation in reprisal. Franciszek Gajowniczek (prisoner number 5659) was one of those selected at roll-call. When the Franciscan priest, Kolbe, heard Gajowniczek cry out in agony over the fate of his family, he offered himself instead (for which he was later canonized). 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 (prisoner 16670) was put to death with an injection of carbolic acid.
Gajowniczek was sent from Auschwitz to Sachsenhausen concentration camp on October 25, 1944. He was liberated there by the Allies, after spending five years, five months, and nine days in Nazi camps in total. He reunited with his wife, Helena, half-a-year later in Rawa Mazowiecka. Though she survived the war, his sons were killed in a Soviet bombardment of Nazi-occupied Poland in 1945, before his release.
After World War II
Gajowniczek was a guest of Pope Paul VI in the Vatican, when Maximilian Kolbe was beatified for his martyrdom on October 17, 1971. In 1972, Time magazine reported that over 150,000 people 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 in the Vatican again as a guest of Pope John Paul II when Maximilian Kolbe was canonized by him on October 10, 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 city of Brzeg on March 13, 1995 at the age of 93. He was buried at a convent cemetery in Niepokalanów, slightly more than 53 years after having his life spared by Kolbe. He was survived by his second wife, Janina.
- W.P. (2009-03-13). "Franciszek Gajowniczek (1901-1995)". Aktualności (in Polish). Serwis informacyjny Franciszkanie.pl. Retrieved 2 July 2013. "Wychowany jestem w atmosferze religii katolickiej, wiarę swoją w najcięższych momentach zachowałem, religia była dla mnie wówczas jedyną dźwignią i nadzieją. — Fr. Gajowniczek."
- David Binder. "Franciszek Gajowniczek Dead; Priest Died for Him at Auschwitz." The New York Times, March 15, 1995. Retrieved July 2, 2013.
- "Maximilian Kolbe", Jewish Virtual Library