Gajowniczek was one of 10 inmates of the Nazi camp selected for death in reprisal for the escape of another prisoner. Knowing Gajowniczek was married with a family, the priest stepped forward, asking to take his place in the underground starvation cell. The wish was granted and the priest died there the following month. Gajowniczek was spared. The priest was Maximilian Kolbe and Gajowniczek lived to see the day 40 years later when, in October 1982, Kolbe was canonised by a fellow-Pole, Pope John Paul II, at St Peter's in Rome.
Gajowniczek was born in the Polish town of Stradchomin in 1901. He joined the Polish army as a young man and was given a commendation for his role in the 1920 Battle of the Vistula, when the Poles defeated the Red Army which had moved in to crush Polish independence.
In 1940, as a sergeant, Gajowniczek was captured by the Germans and sent to Auschwitz, where he was branded with the number 5659. He spent more than five years in Auschwitz and in another Nazi camp, Sachenhausen.
After his release, he and his wife Janina settled in Brzeg, near Opole in southern Poland, remaining there until his death. In gratitude for the self-sacrifice of Maximilian Kolbe, Gajowniczek devoted much of the rest of his life to promoting knowledge of the Franciscan, giving talks about the saint in various countries. His mission to "repay a debt", as he put it, was rewarded in 1971, when Kolbe was beatified by Pope Paul VI, and reached its climax when he was declared a saint in 1982. Gajowniczek was present in Rome to witness official church recognition of the priest who had saved his life. He also kept in close contact with Fr Maximilian's Franciscan community at Niepokolanow, near Warsaw.
Gajowniczek was appointed by President Lech Walesa to the committee which organised last January's commemoration at Auschwitz of the 50th anniversary of the camp's liberation towards the end of the war. Last December, at Niepokolanow, he took part in commemorations marking the centenary of Kolbe's birth.
He always expressed the desire that he should be buried in the Franciscan cemetery at the monastery, a wish respected by his family.
Francziszek Gajowniczek: born Stradchomin, Poland 1901; died Brzeg, Poland 13 March 1995.