Witold Pilecki—Auschwitz Volunteer Who Told the World About the Nazi Death Camp
By Ted Rajchel
Witold Pilecki was a Polish cavalry officer, intelligent agent, and resistance leader during World War II. He volunteered to be captured by the Nazis and embedded in the Auschwitz concentration camp to understand the nature of the camp, which was not known at the time. After his escape several years later, he wrote Witold’s Report, the first comprehensive intelligent report on the atrocities of the Holocaust. Witold Pilecki was a Polish resistance fighter, who voluntarily went to Auschwitz to start a resistance. He sent messages to the allies, becoming the first to sound the alarm about the true nature of Nazi Germany’s largest concentration and extermination camp.
Witold Pilecki was born on the 13th of May 1901 in the town of Olonets, Karelia, Poland, at that time in the Russian Empire. He was a descendant of a noble family. His grandfather, Jozef Pilecki, was a member of the Polish landed gentry and a dedicated Polish Nationalist. Jozef Pilecki had been a supporter of the secessionist January uprising by Russian forces of 1863,1864 following the brutal defeat of the uprising by Russian forces. Jozef Pilecki, like most Polish nobles who had supported the rebellion, had his title revoked and his estate and other properties confiscated by the Russian government. He was condemned to exile to Siberia for seven years. After his release, he and his family were forcibly resettled by Tsarist authorities to the remote territory of Karelia, Poland, where Withold was born.
Nazis Invaded Poland in 1939
As a young man Witold Pilecki fought against the Soviets in the Polish-Soviet War, earning citations for gallantry. When the Nazis invaded Poland at the start of World War II, Pilecki was called back to military service, but Poland fell in less than a month, split by the Nazis and the Soviets. Pilecki went into hiding and joined the Polish resistance. “The French Resistance is so famous, but in actual fact, over half of all the intelligence from continental Europe to reach London came from the Polish underground.” It was the biggest operation in Europe, and they provided the highest quality intelligence—much prized by the allies—about German capacity and war production. As the Nazi occupation‘s grip tightened on Polish Jews, some Poles turned against Jews, too, while many Poles secretly helped their Jewish neighbors. The leader of Pilecki’s resistance cell pushed to make the groups Catholic—only Pilecki was a Catholic, but he argued against the change and pushed successfully to unite the group with a mainstream resistance cell that believed in equal rights for Jews. When the Nazis are doing their best to try and divide society and break down the bonds between Poles, Pilecki occupied Poland was known to be a Nazi work camp for Polish prisoners of war. Pilecki was to gather information about conditions inside and organize a resistance cell, perhaps even an uprising. This dangerous mission was voluntary. He could have refused. On September 18, 1940, he placed himself in the middle of a Gestapo sweep and was sent to Auschwitz.
Life in the Concentration Camp
Nothing could have prepared him for the brutality he found. As he leaped out of a train car with hundreds of other men, he was beaten with clubs. Ten men were randomly pulled from the group and shot. Another man was asked his profession. When he said that he was a doctor, he was beaten to death. Anyone who was educated or Jewish was beaten. Those remaining were robbed of their valuables, stripped, shaved, assigned a number, and given prison stripes, and then marched out to stand in the first of many roll calls. “Let none of you imagine that he will ever leave this place alive’” an SS guard announced. “The rations have been calculated so that you will only survive six weeks. The mass gassings that came to define the Holocaust had yet to begin, but the crematorium was up and running. The only way out of Auschwitz, another guard said, was through the chimney. Thus began 2 ½ years of misery. As Pilecki and other prisoners starved, lice and bedbugs feasted on them. Typhus outbreaks regularly ranged through the camp. Work assignments were exhausting. Guards delighted in punishing the prisoners, who, in desperation, stole from and betrayed one another for scrapes. Many killed themselves by leaping into the electrified fence, but slowly, Pilecki organized his underground. At first, it was just a few men he knew from before. In the end, there were nearly a thousand men. They formed a network to steal and distribute food and extra clothing, sabotage Nazi plans, hide infected and sick prisoners, and improve morale with a sense of brotherhood and regular news from the outside world. “With almost a thousand men– and barring for one incident with a Gestapo spy—not one of Pilecki’s men betrayed each other, in extraordinary circumstances of starvation and violence.” Pilecki’s built something really powerful in that camp.”
The Underground Working with the Allies
Starting in October 1940, the Underground worked together to smuggle messages to the resistance (Allies) outside. The first was sent via prisoner Alzksander Wielopolski. In Auschwitz’s early days, a few prisoners were able to secure their release, if their families paid big enough brides. Wielopolski was one of those few. Rather than risk smuggling out a paper report, Pilecki had him memorize it. Once free, Wielopolski passed the message on to Pilecki’s friends in the Resistance and Allies. Pilecki never knew whether or not his reports reached the Allies. Over the next two years, Pilecki continued to send messages to London via risky escapes by his men and notes passed to Polish farmers neighboring the camp. Each message was direr: the Nazis were conducting disgusting medical experiments on patients in the camp hospital. The Nazis killed thousands of Soviet POWs in a mass execution. The Nazis were testing a way to gas prisoners en masse. The camp expanding. Huge trainloads of Jews were being gassed and cremated. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were being murdered. “Pilecki, by recording every step of the camp’s evolution towards the Holocaust, was in some ways grappling with the very essence of the Nazi’s “evil before anyone else”. Pilecki kept asking: Couldn’t the allies at least bomb the train lines leading to the gas chambers or create a distraction so the prisoners could try to rise up and escape?
Pilecki Decided to Leave Auschwitz
By spring 1943 it was clear the Allies weren’t going to help the prisoners without any outside help. An uprising would never succeed. Increasingly frail and in danger of being found out, he decided it was time for him to leave Auschwitz. It took months to plan, but he and two friends pulled off an incredible escape through the camp bakery in the early hours of the 27th of April. From there, he sneaked into Warsaw, where he was briefly reunited with his wife and children. The Soviets liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. By then 1.1 million people had been killed there, most of them Jews. We think of May 1945 as the end of the Second World War in Europe, with parades and so on. “Pilecki’s story is a powerful reminder that what happened in Eastern Europe was that the Allies gave Soviet leader Joseph Stalin a free hand to occupy and subjugate half of Continental Europe.” The war didn’t end for millions of people. Poland would spend the next four decades as a communist puppet state behind the iron curtain, but Pilecki didn’t see much of it. He remained loyal to the idea of a free Polish republic and continued sending messages to British intelligence. He was arrested by communist authorities in 1947, tortured repeatedly, and executed as an enemy of the state the next year. According to a Polish newspaper, as he was led to his death, he said, “I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death, I would rather feel joy than fear.” Pilecki’s reports remained hidden away in Polish archives until the 1990s. Now he was showered with posthumous awards and hailed as the hero he was. He is also a symbol of the way many Poles were forced to bury their war experiences for decades. Comparing it to the American heroes of D-Day, they had been treated as traitors. That reckoning continued as leaders from over the world gathered in Israel to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz. In attendance was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had recently spread misinformation about the Poles during World War II. He was given a top speaking role at the ceremony, prompting Polish President Andrzej Duda to boycott the event. Pilecki’s place of burial has never been found, but it is thought to be somewhere within Warsaw’s Powazki Cemetery. After the fall of communism in Poland, in 2012 Powazki Cemetery was partially excavated in an effort to find his remains.
Pilecki and all others sentenced in the show trial were rehabilitated in September 1990. He was awarded The Order of Polonia Restituta in 1995 and received the Order of the White Eagle in 2006, the highest Polish decoration. On the 6th of September, 2013, he was promoted to colonel by the minister of national defense. Films about Pilecki include, “The Death of Captain Pilecki”, 2006, the film “Pilecki”, 2005, and the documentaries “Against the odds: Resistance in Nazi Concentration Camps”, 2004 and “Heroes of War: Poland,” 2014 produced by Sky Vision for the History Channel UK. A number of books have been written about him and his comprehensive 1945 report on his undercover mission at Auschwitz. One of them was published in English in 2012 under the title “The Auschwitz Volunteer; Beyond Bravery.” The New York Times called it “A Historical Document of the Greatest Importance”. Pilecki is the subject of Jack Fairweather’s 2018 book entitled “The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero Who Infiltrated Auschwitz”.