Captain Witold Pilecki – The Auschwitz Volunteer !
“I tried to live in such a manner that at the moment of death I may be glad rather than fearful” written by Witold Pilecki in Warsaw prison before his execution.
May 1948, Warsaw prison in Soviet occupied Poland. A middle-aged man is taken out of his prison cell and killed by a single shot to the back of his head. Swiftly, his body was secretly loaded on a truck and taken to an undisclosed place whereunmarked grave was prepared.
The memories of this man and his heroic deeds are to be obliterated for all generations to come.
But who is this man, whom the all-powerful communist authorities feared so much?
He is Captain Witold Pilecki.
An extraordinary man, who was described as one of the six bravest soldiers of WW2, by the British historian Professor Michael Foot in his book „Six Faces of Courage”. In the introduction to the book “The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery”, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich wrote “When God created the human being, God had in mind that we should all be like Captain Witold Pilecki, of blessed memory”.
When Pilecki was born in 1901, his country Poland had not existed for more than 100 years, after having been partitioned between its three powerful neighbours, Kingdom of Prussia, the Russian and Austrian-Hungarian Empires.
He was born in North West of Russia where his family was deported 40 years earlier for challenging the occupier. During these traumatic times Poland and its ideals continued to exist in the hearts and minds of people like Pilecki’s family.
Because speaking the Polish language was forbidden in public, mothers would teach their children to pray in Polish, at home. And so, in spite of the intense Russification and religious persecution the language, the Roman Catholic religion, the values and love for the non-existent country survived through generations.
Priorand during WW1, young Pilecki was active in Polish scout movement, an illegal activity under the occupiers. The scout movement continued the traditional values best expressed by the Polish adage „Bóg Honor, Ojczyzna” meaning God, Honour, Fatherland.
Many people of Pilecki’s generation lived by these values, which meant faith in God, self-sacrifice, sincerity, loyalty, integrity, respect for all people and patriotism.
After Poland gained independence in 1918, Pilecki joined the regular Polish Army. But the threats to his country intensified and reached a peak at the time of the Soviet invasion in 1920.
The invasion was repelled and thus saved Poland and Western Europe from communism. For his contributions in the war, Pilecki was twice awarded the Cross of Valour.
But Pilecki was not interested in professional soldiering and as soon as the war was over he went to pursue his studies in agriculture and then fine arts. He married in 1931, moved to a farm to raise a family.
Pilecki’s wife worked in the local school and he looked after their farm, home, children and carried out extensive voluntary social work. In his spare time Pilecki wrote poetry and painted for his local church and friends.He organised the local farmers to establish a milk cooperative, agricultural club, voluntary fire fighting units and contributed to his society in numerous other ways, which were recognised by the Polish Government by awarding him the Silver Cross of Merit in 1938.
This happy life did not last long.
On 1st September 1939, Germany invaded Poland from the west and two weeks later, the Soviet Union from the east. With occupied Poland firmly in the grip of its two tyrannical neighbours, open resistance by the Polish people was futile. However, Pilecki and others continued fighting in the clandestine Home Army.With the fall of Poland, the German and Soviet occupiers implemented their plan to murder millions of Polish citizens.
And so, the Wehrmacht (Gemany’s uniformed armed forces), the Gestapo and the SS undertook random street arrests (roundups) and screening of captives. Anyone declared „an enemy” was murdered or deported to an unknown location. Such events took place on a massive scale. Pilecki suspected that some of his colleagues had been taken to the Auschwitz Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp („Auschwitz”). To confirm his suspicions, report on the state and treatment of prisoners in Auschwitz, Pilecki, arranged to be captured, under a false identity, by the Germans and imprisoned in Auschwitz.
Witold Pilecki with his nephew, not long before volunteering to enter Auschwitz as a prisoner in 1940. Photo of Pilecki family.
He arrived in Auschwitz on the night of 21st September 1940 and was tattooed with the prisoner number 4859. In Auschwitz, Pilecki organised many of the imprisoned officers into a clandestine organisation so as to gather intelligence on the state and treatment of the prisoners. During the next three years Pilecki and his organisation assisted weaker prisoners to survive, gathered intelligence and planned liberation of the camp.Pilecki’s organisation passed the intelligence to the Allies, which authoritatively described the full horror of Auschwitz and the martyrdom of the majority of Polish prisoners from 1940 to 1942. The evidence included overwhelming information about the implementation of the” Final Solution”, a massive murder of Jewish people. In 1942, the Polish Government in Exile sent a memorandum to the League of Nations entitled „The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland”. The memorandum was largely ignored by the League of Nations, as were subsequentapproaches by the Polish Government in Exile to Western Allied Governments.
During the night of the 26th April 1943, Pilecki, together with two other prisoners successfully escaped from Auschwitz. Three months later he reached Warsaw. There, Pilecki compiled a comprehensive report, „Report W”, for the Polish Resistance. “Report W” is an astonishing historical document: it comprehensively details the evolution and horror of the massive scale crimes against humanity committed at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1943.The report includes references to treatment of Catholic priests “Kapos line us up, and, jeering wildly and exchanging jokes. They kill off sick and weak people or those who admitted to being a priest…”
Also amongst the unspeakable horror of the camp Pilecki writes about humanity and sacrifice that this most horrible place could not purge“…the commandant selected ten inmates, from our block, to die. It was very difficult for us, yet we experienced a dignifying moment when a Catholic priest offered his life for a younger man who was selected to die. The commandant accepted the sacrifice and the young man was allowed to live” (1).After completing his Report, Pilecki continued to be active in the Polish underground and in 1944 he took part in the Warsaw Uprising.
Professor Norman Davies in his authoritative book “Rising’44: The Battle for Warsaw” notes many of Pilecki’s heroic actions against the overwhelming German forces.
After the Uprising was suppressed, Pilecki was taken to a German POW camp. Following the liberation of this camp, in April 1945, Pilecki was freed and joined the ranks of the Polish II Corps in Italy.In October 1945, Pilecki returned to the Soviet occupied Poland to collect intelligence on the Polish soldiers killed or deported to the Soviet Union by the Stalinist secret police and on the activities of the Polish puppet regime’s security units.
In May 1947 Pilecki was arrested by Public Security operatives, imprisoned andsavagely tortured. A year later, Pilecki was subjected to a show trial and then killed.
Yet, the powerful Soviet authorities and Polish communists were so afraid of him and desperate to airbrush him from history that after committing the judiciary murder, they secretly buried his body in a grave, which to this day has notbeen found. In the introduction of the book “The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery”, Professor Norman Davies wrote, „Pilecki’s name mirrors the tragic fate of millions whom the West forgot. Only when one grasps the true horror of his fate can one comprehend what the Second World War in Europe was really about.”
(1) This may be a reference to Father (now Saint) Maximillian Kolbe who saved Franciszek Gajowniczak by offering himself for a horrible death by starvation.