“I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would feel joy rather than fear.”(Cavalry Captain Witold Pilecki, upon being sentenced to death.)
In honor of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I would like to dedicate a post to the incredible story of a lionhearted Polish officer who voluntarily spent nearly three years there.
Witold Pilecki was not born in Poland, but in Karelia (then part of the Tsar’s Archduchy of Finland). His grandfather, Jozef Pilecki, had been stripped of his peerage and banned to Siberia for supporting the 1861 Polish uprising against the Tsar, then upon his return had been forcibly resettled in Karelia. Witold’s father Julian worked as a forester. Eventually, the Pileckis relocated to Wilna (presently Vilnius) where Witold joined a forbidden Polish scouts group. After the German invasion of 1915, the family relocated to Mogilev (presently in Belarus). Come 1918 and the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, the Germans withdrew and Pilecki joined irregular troops fighting with the Whites, then made his way West to the newly created Polish Republic and joined its fledging army. He was twice decorated with the Cross of Valor for bravery in the Polish-Soviet War.
Subsequently, he had parallel military and civilian careers: he commanded a cavalry training school at Lida (as well as the 1st “Lidsky” Cavalry Squadron) while acquiring his ancestral manor house and becoming a respected gentleman farmer and agricultural community leader.
After Lt. Pilecki’s unit was nearly wiped out during the twin Nazi-Soviet invasions of 1939, Pilecki went underground and co-founded the Secret Polish Army. Pilecki grew uncomfortable with the ultranationalist and anti-Jewish rhetoric of his co-founder and went over to the rival Union of Armed Struggle (ZWZ), better known under its later name Armia Krajowa (Home Army, AK).
The underground knew of a concentration camp at Oswiecim/Auschwitz (what we now know as the main camp, or Auschwitz I). At the time, it primarily held Polish political prisoners. But what happened on the inside was opaque to the AK. Incredibly, Pilecki offered to have himself locked up there to spy on the inside and organize resistance among the prisoners! His superior officers approved the plan: Lt. Pilecki took on the alias of Tomas Serafinski [presumably to protect his family] and deliberately had himself arrested during a roundup.
He then spent nearly three years in the main camp, where he organized the ZOW underground. They tried to raise inmate morale, provide mutual assistance, extra food, and medicine to members in need, to arrange lighter work details for weakened members, and to prepare for an uprising. They also smuggled out information to the AK outside, at first using inmates on outside work details, later using a radio transmitter constructed from parts laboriously purloined.
On the night of April 26 to 27, 1943. Pilecki and two comrades escaped. With the help of a parish priest, they reached an AK safe house. Pilecki was shot during his escape, but miraculously got off with a flesh wound. After reaching Warsaw and being attached to the staff of the AK’s military intelligence, he started preparing an elaborate “Report W” (English translation available here http://witoldsreport.blogspot.com/2008/05/volunteer-for-auschwitz-report-by.html ) Aside from a lot of detail on daily life in the camp, its privations, and the bestial treatment the prisoners received, it discussed the Holocaust in progress at the sister camp Auschwitz II (Birkenau). His estimate of the number of killed up to that point, 1.5 million, was fairly accurate.[*] ) In November 1943, Pilecki was promoted to Rotmistrz (Cavalry Captain, from the German Rittmeister).
During the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, Pilecki commanded the 1st Company as “Captain Roman”. He was eventually taken prisoner during the surrender of the AK in October. Fortunately, AK commander Gen. Bor-Komorowski[**] had been able to extract the concession from his opposite number, Waffen SS-General von dem Bach-Zelewski, that Polish Army POWs were to be treated as combatants under the Geneva Convention. Thus Cav. Capt. Pilecki was not sent to a concentration camp (or shot out of hand, as many were in the beginning of the uprising) but held at a POW camp for officers at Murnau.
Unbelievably, come the end of the war and liberation, Cav. Capt. Pilecki again volunteered for a mission: the Polish general Anders sent him into now-Soviet-occupied Poland to gather intelligence and organize an underground.
Pilecki frequently changed aliases and occupations, and smuggled out valuable information — on Soviet atrocities during their 1939-41 occupation, on Soviet (and Soviet lapdog) persecution of Home Army veterans, but also on the Kielce Pogrom.
Pilecki was tipped off that the so-called “Ministry of Public Security” was on his trail, but refused to leave. Arrested and tortured, he denounced nobody and revealed nothing, except that he shared information with his old army comrades and did not regard this as espionage. Following a show trial, he was found guilty of espionage for the “Western imperialists” and of (wholly fictitious) assassination plans, then sentenced to death.
His reaction to the sentence was reportedly: “I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would feel joy rather than fear.”
Capt. Pilecki is a national hero in Poland, but nearly unknown abroad.
I first learned of his story from the song “Inmate 4859” by Swedish power metal band Sabaton, whose singer and chief songwriter Joakim Broden specializes in straight-up true war and heroism stories.
(Power metal isn’t really my thing, but major kudos to the band for teaching history to a young generation that learns so little of it.) A one-man Broadway show has meanwhile been produced (trailer below)
And most recently, an excellent biography of Pilecki in English has been published: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07C2CH12H/
Let me leave the last word to Poland’s Chief Rabbi, Michael Shudrich:
“When G-d created humanity, G-d had in mind that we should all be like Captain Witold Pilecki, of blessed memory. May the life of Witold Pilecki inspire us all to do one more good deed, of any kind, each and every day of our lives.” Amen.
[*] An earlier version of the report had been smuggled out by Kazimierz Piechowski and his three companions during their successful June 20, 1942 escape. The four men had managed to sneak into an SS arms and uniforms cache via a coal store, then drove out in a car from the motor pool! They were never caught: a prisoner who had helped them in their escape was starved to death by the SS. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kazimierz_Piechowski
[**] An Allied proclamation of August 30, 1944 that the 1st Polish Army were Allied combatants, and threatening reprisals for mistreatment, gave this order some teeth.