Do not worry about me; I am in God's hands. I want to assure you that I feel His help at every step. Despite the present situation, I am happy and completely at peace - Father Kowalski's final letter to his family from the Auschwitz Concentration Camp
Father Kowalski was the seventh of nine children and was born in Siedeliska (then part of partitioned Poland) on March 13th, 1911. His parents were farmers and very devout Catholics. After primary school, Father Kowalski was enrolled at the Salesian College at Oswiecim (Auschwitz) where he stood out for his cheerfulness and enthusiastic commitment to his studies. As a student, Father Kowalski found a deep devotion to both the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Eucharist, once writing:
"Oh my Mother, I must be holy because this is my destiny. O Jesus, to you I offer my poor heart... Grant that I may never depart from You and that until death I remain faithful: I would rather die than offend you, even with a small sin. I must be a holy Salesian, as was my father Don Bosco..."
In 1938, Father Kowalski was ordained a priest in Krakow and joined the Salesian Society (Salesians of Don Bosco, or Society of Saint Francis de Sales). During his service at the parish of Saint Stanislaw Kostka in Debniki, Krakow, Father Kowalski became friends wither another priest, the future Saint Pope John Paul II. Soon after this ordination, Father Kowalski was named to the post of Secretary to the Salesian Provincial, a role he would continue to preform alongside teaching during the Nazi occupation of Poland. On May 23rd, 1941, Father Kowalski was arrested with eleven other Salesians and taken to Montelupich Prison for torture by the Nazi occupation.
Following nearly a month of torture and humiliation at the prison, Father Kowalski was sent to the Auschwitz prison camp and given the prisoner number 17350 (June 26, 1941). Here in Block 25, Father Kowalski would minister to the faithful and non religious alike in secret. Defying the Nazi overseers, Father Kowalski once granted general absolution in front of the guards and prisoners alike as a group of prisoners were sent for execution. He frequently held Mass in secret and held lectures with the fellow prisoners, always encouraging them to not lose hope and to continue to fight to survive. During roll call one morning, the Blockfuhrer Gerhard Palitzsch saw that Father Kowalski had secretly hid a rosary. The Blockfuhrer's decree was simple and direct - throw the rosary on the ground and step on it or face terrible consequences. Father Kowalski refused to do so.
The Blockfuhrer had Father Kowalski assigned to the penal colony. Here Father Kowalski endured further punishments and terrible conditions. On July 3rd, 1942, the guards pulled him out of the barracks and began to beat him mericilessly, taunting the priest for being Catholic. The guards savagely beat him before drowning him in a barrel of human excrement. When the body was found the following day, it was burned alongside other prisoners who had died overnight.
Father Kowalski's decree of martyrdom was published on march 26th, 1999. On June 13th, 1999, Saint Pope John Paul II beatified Father Kowalski during a three hour mass. Nearly 600,000 people attended, including the then preside of Poland, President Aleksander Kwasniewski.