A Polish soldier volunteered to be incarcerated at Auschwitz so he could report on the Nazis’ activities inside the death camp. Glyn Harper salutes the incredible bravery of Witold Pilecki.
One site he chose was an ugly little town of some 12,000 people in Upper Silesia in German-occupied Poland. It was malaria-ridden and poorly industrialised and few people went there. But the town of Auschwitz was perfect. The Germans took over 20 decrepit army barracks and started building an extermination camp. Two miles west of Auschwitz town were some parallel blocks of huts at Birkenau. These would be part of the Auschwitz slaughter factory. In this area of 15 square miles (39sq km), from the middle of 1940 to January 1945, more than three million people would be put to death.
In September 1940, a group of 1800 men picked up in Warsaw in a routine mass round-up by the Germans were being transported to Auschwitz. Denied food and water during the journey, they had a brutal entry into the camp. Hauled from the back of lorries under blinding lights, kicked and rifle-butted into line by SS men, snarled at by savage dogs, the new arrivals were shown how cheap life was at Auschwitz.
One of them later wrote: “On the way, one of us was told to run to a post at the side of the road; he was followed by a burst of automatic weapons fire and mown down. Ten men were then dragged out of the ranks at random and shot with pistols as ‘collective responsibility’ for the ‘escape’, which the SS themselves had staged. All 11 of them were then dragged by leg straps. The dogs were teased with the bloody corpses and set on them. All this to the accompaniment of laughter and joking.
“We approached a gate in a wire fence over which could be seen the sign ‘Arbeit macht frei’ [Work makes you free]. It was only later that we learnt to understand it properly.”
The writer of this passage was a 39-year-old Polish cavalry officer named Witold Pilecki. He had made the astounding choice to voluntarily be incarcerated at Auschwitz so that he could report on its activities to the Polish Home Army – Poland’s anti-Nazi underground movement. It was an incredibly risky mission, one that Pilecki had suggested. It needed a man of remarkable courage to attempt it.
Witold Pilecki’s life was dominated by war and conflict. He was born in 1901 at Olonets, Karelia – his family had been forcibly resettled to this region of Tsarist Russia as punishment for his grandfather’s involvement in the Polish uprising of 1863. That grandfather, Józef Pilecki, also spent seven years in Siberian exile for this “crime”. In 1910, the family moved to the ethnically Polish city of Wilno, now Vilnius, in Lithuania. Here, Witold finished school and joined the secret Polish Scouts movement.
This movement at first resisted the Bolshevik invasion of Wilno and then carried out partisan resistance behind the lines once the Bolsheviks captured the city. After Poland’s re-emergence as a nation state, Witold Pilecki immediately joined the newly formed national army and took an active part in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-21. He fought in the Kiev offensive and in the critical battle of Warsaw. Although still in his teens, Pilecki was twice decorated with Poland’s Cross of Valour. The Polish-Soviet War ended with the Peace of Riga. The Bolsheviks were defeated in this conflict and gallant Poland prevented their advance to Eastern Europe for a quarter of a century.
During the inter-war years, Pilecki lived a normal life. He married in 1931 and had two children. He worked on the family farm, painted, wrote poetry and was active in charity work. He also remained active in Poland’s army reserve, serving as a junior officer in a cavalry regiment.
In August 1939, Pilecki was mobilised and served as a platoon commander in a Polish cavalry unit. This unit, although poorly equipped, took on the advancing German panzer divisions and was largely destroyed. He and his platoon fought on with another unit, managing to destroy seven tanks and three aircraft. But on September 17, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east. After more heavy fighting, Pilecki’s division was disbanded, with parts of it surrendering. Pilecki and another officer returned to Warsaw where, on November 9, 1939, they founded the Secret Polish Army – one of the first underground resistance movements in the country.
Inmate No 4859
The Secret Polish Army later became an essential part of the Armia Krajowa – the Polish Home Army – which, for most of the war, was the largest armed-resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Europe. It was for the Armia Krajowa that Pilecki set out for his deadly assignment to Auschwitz. His mission was to find out what was happening there and to organise resistance within. Witold Pilecki became inmate No 4859.
Pilecki spent almost three years at Auschwitz. He endured starvation, illness and multiple beatings, but he survived. That he did so was due to a combination of Pilecki’s resilience, resourcefulness and courage and sheer good luck. And during his time at Auschwitz, he organised resistance from within and sent valuable intelligence back to Warsaw. Pilecki’s reports were then forwarded to the British Government. Not only was this information accurate, but, in 1942, it was almost instantaneous. After seven months of painstaking work and incredible risk, the resistance members in Auschwitz had constructed a radio transmitter. It was used to send detailed reports on the camp’s activities for much of 1942. In autumn, though, worrying about a security breach, the radio was dismantled.
In early 1943, Pilecki feared that he might not survive much longer. Of the 1800 men who had entered the camp with him, only 10 were still alive. On the night of April 26-27, 1943, he and two other men escaped from Auschwitz, taking with them German documents they had stolen. Nearly 1000 inmates tried to escape from this death camp; only 144 succeeded.
Finally reaching Warsaw in August 1943, Pilecki wrote a detailed report of what he had seen. His report, Raport Witolda (Witold’s Report), included the details of the mass gassings, the medical experimentation and the crematoria at Birkenau capable of burning 8000 bodies a day. Pilecki’s report was soon sent to the Allies, the first detailed, comprehensive account of the Holocaust machine in operation. Unfortunately, the allies’ intelligence organisations were dismissive of the report’s contents, questioning its accuracy and reliability. Much to Pilecki’s alarm, no action was taken by the Allies against Auschwitz, nor was the Polish Home Army strong enough to act alone.
Witold Pilecki’s life after escaping from Auschwitz was indicative of Poland’s tragic situation. In February 1944, he was promoted to captain and joined a secret anti-communist organisation within the Home Army. He took part in the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944, commanding a fortified section of the city called the Great Bastion of Warsaw. It held out for two weeks against repeated German attacks, hoping against hope that Soviet forces on the banks of the Vistula would assist them. They did not move and Pilecki was fortunate to survive the war as a prisoner of the Germans in Silesia, then in Bavaria. Released in July 1945, he wrote an extended version of his 1943 report. This one was more than 100 pages long.
Pilecki then accepted a mission from Polish general Władysław Anders to return to Poland and spy on the newly established communist government there. In July 1946, Pilecki’s cover was blown and he was advised to leave Poland immediately. He refused and was arrested in May 1947. He was repeatedly and brutally tortured, before being subjected to a show trial in March 1948. Inevitably, Pilecki, a war hero many times over, was found guilty on May 15 and executed 10 days later at the Mokotów Prison in Warsaw. He was buried in an unmarked grave, of which no record exists.
Pilecki was officially rehabilitated on October 1, 1990. In 2006, he was awarded the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest decoration. In 2012, Pilecki’s 1945 report on Auschwitz was published in English, entitled The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery. The New York Times described this later report as “a historical document of the greatest importance”. In the introduction to the English translation of the report, the British-Polish historian 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 World War II in Europe was really about.”
There is no doubt Pilecki’s tragic fate reflected the horrors of the war and its painful legacies. But his courage was incredible and certainly beyond bravery. Such courage, suffering and sacrifice may be truly incomprehensible to us today.
Glyn Harper is professor of war studies at Massey University.
This article was first published in the July 15, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.