An Auschwitz Volunteer

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Cavalry Captain Witold Pilecki

Yes, I am not joking, there was such a man.  A man who voluntarily went to Auschwitz.  His name was Witold Pilecki, a Polish Second Lieutenant (later promoted to Cavalry Captain) volunteered to be arrested and to go to Auschwitz to gain intelligence for the Polish underground and organize a resistance movement.  Now most will see this as a suicidal mission (and it might have been), but its important to see this in context of the time.  In 1940, the time of his arrest (under an assumed name), KL Auschwitz was not yet a death camp, its was a German Concentration Camp set up to hold Polish intelligentsia, clergy, political leaders, and anyone else whom the Germans did not like.  He spent almost 3 years at Auschwitz before escaping.  He later fought in the Warsaw Uprising, became a POW after its fall, and after liberation joined the Polish Second Corps in Italy under the command of General Anders.  He was then sent to Poland to gather intelligence, where he was arrested and executed by the Polish Communist Government.  He was rehabilitated in 1990.

Witold Pilecki was one of many of Poland’s tragic heroes of the past 200+ years.  Poland by virtue of its history was forced to produce men of great courage and conviction.  And Captain Pilecki certainly fit that model.  He was born in Karelia, Russia, in 1901.  His grandfather took part in the 1863 January Uprising and was exiled there by the Russians in the repressions after the uprising.  In 1910 the family moved to Wilno, where young Witold finished his schooling and joined the forbidden secret Polish Scouts.  By the age of 17 he was already fighting the Bolsheviks, first as part of a partisan unit, he later joined the regular Polish Army and fought in cavalry units.  He was awarded the Krzyz Walecznych (Cross of Valour) twice for gallantry in battle.  He took part in some of the biggest battles of the Polish-Bolshevik War of, including the Battle of Warsaw (Miracle on the Vistula).  In between the wars he finished his studies, both military and private.  He finished his high school education and later studied at the Stefan Batory University in Wilno.  He moved back to his family estate while remaining a reserve Second Lieutenant.  In between the wars he was an active social activist, he even gained government recognition for his work in the community.

As a reserve officer he was mobilized upon the outbreak of the Second World War.  He fought gallantly in the September Campaign, but with no Allied help coming, and the Soviet invasion on the 17th of September Poland was doomed.  Pilecki’s last unit was disbanded on 22 September and he returned to Warsaw along with his commander.  There he was one of the co-founders of Tajna Armia Polska (TAP, Polish Secret Army), an organization that was later incorporated into the Armia Krajowa (AK, Home Army), the biggest underground resistance organization of WWII.

In 1940 Witold Pilecki came up with a plan, and he somehow convinced his superiors to go along with it.  It was a plan to get inside the Auschwitz Concentration Camp to gather intelligence and organize a resistance movement.  At the time the AK knew very little about Auschwitz.  Pilecki’s plan was to let himself be captured in one of the round ups the Germans were conducting in Warsaw.  A round up was just what it meant.  Germans would seal off several blocks of flats and arrest anyone they could get their hands on.  Some were aimed at certain areas or people, some were just random.  On September 19th Witold Pilecki managed to get himself arrested by the Germans.  After spending a couple of days in a German prison he was sent to KL Auschwitz, prisoner number 4859.

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Pilecki's Arrest Photos

While at Auschwitz he promptly set about organizing the Związek Organizacji Wojskowej (ZOW, Union of Military Organizations).  It eventually incorporated all other resistance groups in the Camp.  Its tasks were to help with morale, gather and send intelligence, and prepare for a take over of the camp in the event of an attack from outside by Polish or other Allied forces.  From October 1940 on ZOW began to sent reports on the conditions and situation at Auschwitz to the Armia Krajowa.  These were then sent to London and distributed to other Allied intelligence agencies and governments.  The long standing Allied excuse of “we knew nothing” is just a poor excuse and nothing more.  Everyone knew.  AK told them.  Pilecki’s biggest hope was for the Allies to bomb the railways leading to Auschwitz, along with an airborne attack combined with a ground assault by the Armia Krajowa on the camp itself to liberate its inmates, while the inmates themselves would revolt from the inside.  Even after it became apparent that the Allies would do nothing he still tried to get the AK units operating in the area to attack the by themselves.  Unfortunately this plan was seen as impractical.

In late April of 1943, after surviving a bout of pneumonia, he and a couple of fellow prisoners made their escape.  After several days he returned to Warsaw and joined the AK intelligence service.  He sent several reports to the West about the conditions in the Camp along with his plan of assault.  Again the Allies refused to help.  His, and others’ reports on the Camps and the Holocaust were thought to be exaggerations in the West.  In any case, help was refused.  As was the help of the Soviet Army which was near Auschwitz by 1944, the plan by the AK and ZOW was not accepted and no liberation came until 27th of January of 1945.

In February of 1944 Witold Pilecki was promoted to the rank of Rotmistrz (Rittmeister in German meaning cavalry captain).  Again he fought.  This time during the Warsaw Uprising.  At first he volunteered as a regular soldier to a front line unit.  He revealed his rank only after the unit took several officer casualties and he accepted command.  He and his unit fought gallantly throughout the uprising.  After its fall he hid their weapons and surrendered.  Captain Pilecki spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp (the Germans made a concession to treat all fighters as regular POW during the surrender negotiations).  After he was liberated by the Western Allies he joined the Polish Second Corps (of Monte Cassino fame) in Italy.

There he was sent on yet another mission.  By October of 1945 he was back in Poland under an assumed name to gather intelligence for the Polish Government in Exile.  He promptly begun to organize an intelligence network to report on Soviet and Polish Communist activities.  By 1946, the Polish GiE decided that the situation in Poland would not change and released its soldiers from their oath and told them to go back to their daily lives or to escape to the West.  Pilecki continued his work, this time reporting on Soviet and Polish Communist atrocities in persecuting Poles who mostly were members of the Armia Krajowa in WWII.  He continued even after he was told his cover was blown.  He was arrested in May of 1947.

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After his arrest

For a wonder, this time some of the charges the Communists were accusing him of were true.  He was in fact gathering intelligence for the Polish GiE.  But as was the Communist tradition they added false charges as well.  He along with his “co-conspirators” was repeatedly and brutally tortured prior to his trial.  During one of the rare visits of his wife before he was executed, he reportedly told her that Auschwitz compared to his torture by fellow Poles was child’s play.  In March of 1948 a show trial took place.  It was evident that he and the other defendants were going to be found guilty.  The Communists were sticklers for legality, no matter how absurd it was.  Guilty they were found. 4 of the defendants, Captain Pilecki among them, received the death penalty, the others lengthy prison sentences.  The charges ranged from spying for foreign governments to plotting to assassinate officials of the security ministry (Polish version of NKVD/KGB).  Captain Pilecki only admitted to sending information to the Polish Second Corps.  The others’ sentences were changed to life in prison, only Pilecki was executed.

To make matters worse the trial was prosecuted by a former Armia Krajowa officer.  The Lead Judge was also from the AK.  President Bierut refused to grant clemency.  As did the Polish Communist Premier, Jozef Cyrankiewicz.  Also and ex Armia Krajowa man, who too was a fellow Auschwitz inmate and who belonged to ZOW in the Camp.  It was even reported that he sent a statement that was read out in court in which he condemned Witold Pilecki.  Writing that his past positive acts can not wipe away his guilt in fighting the People’s Polish Republic.  And so, just ten days after his trial, on may 25th 1948, Captain Witold Pilecki was executed in prison.  A chaplain was present (only one recorded presence of a clergymen during an execution), he administered a blessing and Captain Pilecki was shot, to the back of the head, Soviet style.  And thus ended a life of an extraordinary man, a great Polish patriot, a great officer, and a brilliant intelligence operative.  He only has a symbolic grave as his body was never returned to the family.  It was most likely dumped and buried in a trash pit near the Powązki Cemetery.

In Poland his story was unknown.  Suppressed by the regime that killed him.  It was only after it fell that he was rehabilitated and finally honoured in a manner he deserved.  Now Poles are able to read about this remarkable man, he received posthumous medals, and there are streets and schools named after him.  Captain Pilecki is finally remembered in a Poland he fought for so long and hard, but did live to see.  May he rest in peace.

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Czesc Jego pamieci

  2. super

  3. chwała bohaterowi !

  4. You didn’t write about the most intresting thing in Pilecki’s story. The procurator who was responsible for Witold Pilecki dead sentence, died in hospital on Witold Pilecki street.

    • I did not write it, because I did not know about it, so thanks for sharing that. Shame he lived so long, hope he suffered. But yes, a bit of unintended justice perhaps. Cheers.


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