Auschwitz Inmate 4859: the incredible story of Witold Pilecki (1901-1948)

“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.

Rotmistrz [=cavalry captain] Witold Pilecki

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.

The “Malgré-nous”: Alsatian French citizens involuntarily recruited into the Wehrmacht

On French-language QUORA, somebody asked the troll question if it was really true that, after the initial invasion, more French had fought on the side of the Axis than of the Allies. 
Of course this doesn’t hold water: total number of combatants in the Free French forces reached about 1.3 million at the time of Liberation. In contrast, about 11,000 French voluntarily joined the Axis forces (mostly the Waffen-SS — near the end of the war, one French battalion that had been transfered from the wiped-out Charlemagne Division to bolster the 11th Waffen SS Division “Nordland” fought nearly to the last man in the final defense of Berlin’s government district).

About 125,000 or so Vichy French forces in North Africa switched sides from the Axis to the Allies a few days ninto Operation Torch, and there were smaller Vichy French forces (about 8,000 in Syria and Lebanon) who fought against the Allies. (The future Israeli general Moshe Dayan lost one eye to a Vichy French bullet during a 1941 British commando raid to secure bridges across the Litani river. He wore his iconic eyepatch ever since.)


In all, we are talking at most 275,000 French combatants on the Axis side. The missing 130,000 or so in this total were not volunteers at all: they called themselves the “Malgré-nous”, literally “despite ourselves”, idiomatically “against our will”.

You see: the Franco-German border regions of Alsace and Lorraine (capital city: Strasbourg/Strassburg) changed hands several times between France and Germany; most recently to Germany in 1871 after French defeat in the Franco-German War, and back again to France after WW I. Much of the local population did not think of itself as French or German first, but as Alsatian (Elsasser). The local vernacular, Elsasserdeutsch, is fairly close to Swiss German, with influences from both French and Yiddish.[*]

After the Nazi occupation, Alsace-Lorraine was de facto annexed to the Reich as part of the Reichsgau Westmark [“Western march”], which also included the Saarland and the Palatinate/Pfalz in Germany. The Nazis regarded the Alsatians as ethnically German, and hence imposed conscription on them, initially (May 1942) just for labor, from August 24, 1942 also for the Wehrmacht. Many went underground and tried to escape via the Vosges mountain range to Switzerland. Of the remaining 130,000, about 90% were sent to the Eastern Front — where about 32,000 fell in battle and another 10,500 went missing. 
Among the remaining 10% was a small group who had been cherry-picked out of the Wehrmacht draft by Waffen SS recruiters: this was a common practice by that stage of the war. Indeed, 14 Alsatians belonging to the 2nd Waffen SS-division “Das Reich” participated in the Oradour massacre in Normandy, 1 of them a volunteer (sentenced to death after the war), the other 13 “shanghaied” as described above.

The main long-term effect of the Nazi occupation was that the Alsace population now decisively embraced France and French culture — ironically, achieving in a few years what the French themselves had been unable to do in a century.
As for the “Malgré-nous” themselves, initially they were often seen as collaborators — especially by Communists, who did not care for the frank descriptions of Soviet POW camps that newly released POWs gave. Eventually, however, their forced conscription was recognized as a war crime by both France and the German Federal Republic, which in the 1980s started paying a (rather symbolic) indemnity to the about 80,000 surviving “Malgré-nous”.

[*] A very sizable Jewish population used to live in Alsace-Lorraine: I will devote a future blog post to them. As a teaser, let me just point out that Dreyfus is a typical Alsatian-Jewish surname [originally an archaic name for Trier], and Capt. Alfred Dreyfus was originally from Mulhouse.

Critical praise for “Operation Flash, Ep. 2”

From Pat Patterson’s long review on GoodReads:

I obtained this book through the Kindle Unlimited program.

When the series was introduced, it immediately was placed into my “Guilty Pleasures” category. A book in that category gets read, IMMEDIATELY, regardless of what else I’ve had in the queue ahead of it, and also regardless of whether or not I’m being at all diligent in in reviewing the books I have actually read. 
I don’t like talking about the fact that I have a Guilty Pleasure category. In fact, I plan to deny having such a category in all future conversations. Here’s the take-away: I absolutely LOVE this series. 

Just in case you missed my review of the first book, here’s the basic idea: one of the very many plots against Hitler actually succeeded.[…] the Allies are thrown into confusion that nearly matches that of the German leadership. Nobody is certain who they can trust, and how far.

This is not a criticism, not a criticism, not a criticism! The books end too soon.
That is SIGNIFICANTLY ameliorated by the fact that these books are so historically sound in their basis, that if you are like me, and love going on rabbit trails when your curiosity is triggered, you can spend a LOT of time reading about the way history worked out in OUR timeline. Almost all of the characters are based on real people; they make for fascinating reading. 
If the author had just used hand puppets, and told the story with them, it would still be a really nice thought-exercise of ‘what-if.’ However, through the eyes of the few fictional characters, we get great insights to the way people think, and what would have been real reactions to these circumstances, because the author has done a wonderful job of making the words on the page into real, flesh-and-blood people.

I’m going to eat each of these installments as they come out, BUT the real feast will be when the series is finished (and I hope that isn’t going to be too soon), and I grab up every installment and binge-read. Maybe multiple times.

Delightful!

The book is available for $0.99 on Kindle, or is included with your subscription for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

The wartime clandestine ‘Shetland Bus’ to and from Norway, and the Telavåg tragedy

In the west of Norway, not far from Bergen, lies the fishermen’s village of Telavåg. The linear distance to the Shetland Islands is fairly short (about 185 nautical miles). Hence, during the Nazi occupation of Norway, fishing boats were used for what the British called “the Shetland Bus“: resistance men wanted by the Gestapo were smuggled out to the Shetland Islands, while SOE operatives traveled in the opposite direction. After some losses, three US Navy submarine chasers on loan to the British were disguised as fishing boats, manned by Norwegian seamen who’d made it to England.

HNoMS Hitra, one of the three former US sub chasers that plied the Shetland Bus
Kapt.Lt. Leif “Shetlands” Larsen, commander of HNoMS Vigra

Sadly, as I was told at the Telavåg Nordsjofartsmuseum, the men running the Telavåg “Bus station” were not big on operational security: all it took was for somebody to knock on their door saying they needed help getting to England. And thus, one day a Gestapo stool pigeon managed to penetrate the operation.

On April 26, 1942, the Gestapo came to carry out arrests, but a firefight broke out, in which two mid-level Gestapo officers were killed, Kriminalrat Gerhard Berns and Kriminalsekretär Henry Bertram.

The Nazi viceroy, Reichskommissar Josef Terboven[*], decreed retaliation. On April 30, the SS landed with boats, deported the entire population of the village, and razed it to the ground. Had this been Poland or Russia, the entire population would likely have been killed outright. But as Norwegians were considered Aryans and not so-called “Untermenschen”, the men (aged 18 to 60) were instead deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp (north of Berlin), while the women and children were imprisoned at a school. A local doctor who knew how to “fake” positive tests for infectious diseases managed to prevent their further deportation.

The fate of the Norwegian inmates at KL Sachsenhausen is discussed here, in German, on the blog of Prof. Günter Morsch (former longtime director of the Sachsenhausen memorial site and author of a monograph on the camp). The SS inspector-general for Norway, Hans Loritz, had previously been the camp commander until deposed for corruption. He may have favored sending such Norwegian political prisoners there as were not incarcerated locally. (Additionally, about 900 Jews who were unable to hide or escape to neutral Sweden were sent to the extermination camps, including even the tiny Jewish community of Tromsø above the polar circle! [**] )

About half of the deported men died in the camp or shortly afterwards, mostly from privations suffered there. (Notices that their widows got from the camp administration, listing the usual camouflaged causes of death such as “pneumonia” or “heart failure”, are on display at the museum.) As explained by Morsch, at the end of 1942 the Norwegian inmates were given permission to receive food parcels (particularly from the Red Cross), which greatly reduced mortality among the Norwegians. In March 1945, finally, the Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte brokered an agreemeent that permitted the repatriation of Danish and Norwegian prisoners via what came to be known as the “Bernadotte Buses”. Only a single, moribund Telavåg prisoner was left at the camp.

The returnees rebuilt Telavåg after the war. Their fellow Norwegian inmates had included a number of intellectuals (from the former Chancellor of Oslo University to the son of polar explorer and humanitarian Fridjof Nansen), and Morsch explains that Sachsenhausen survivors played a very prominent role in Norwegian postwar politics.

In 1998, a memorial museum was opened at Telavåg.

As for Josef Terboven, he committed suicide on VE-Day rather than face an assured death sentence and execution.

[*] Terboven was first and foremost a party boss, the erstwhile Gauleiter (regional leader) of the NSDAP for the Ruhr area.

[**] I will blog about their tragic fate, and Tromsø in WW II more generally, in the near future.

Real, not alternate history: the Battle for Castle Itter, the one time when US Army and Wehrmacht fought together against the SS

On May 5, 1945, just three days before VE-Day, Castle Itter[*] in Northern Tyrol became the scene of a most improbable battle. 
Since 1943, this castle had been converted by the SS into a kind-of “VIP prison” for prominent inmates from occupied France. These included two former French PMs (Edouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud); Charles de Gaulle’s sister Marie-Agnès; General Maurice Gamelin and his successor Maxime Weygand; Michel Clémenceau, son of the WW I-era prime minister; former French ambassador to Germany André François-Poncet; and many others. 
The place was administratively an Aussenlager (satellite camp) of Dachau (where another group of “prominents” was held in the main camp itself). A group of lower-status Dachau inmates carried out menial work.
The commander, SS-Hauptsturmführer [i.e., captain] Wimmer, was under orders to shoot the prisoners if capture by the Allies became imminent. He supposedly promised a prisoner delegation he would not implement this order, but the inmates placed no trust in this promise.
The camp electrician, a Yugoslav inmate, was sent out on an errand as a cover to go looking for US troops. He found a reconnaisance patrol nearly 70 km away near Innsbruck. The SS garrison did meanwhile flee, but the prisoners feared a roving SS unit would come to the castle.

The Americans sent a small team (14 men under Lt. “Jack” Lee, including crews of two Sherman tanks, “Besotten Jenny” and “Bochebuster”), which joined up with about 20 Wehrmacht soldiers led by a defector to the Austrian resistance, Major Josef Gangl.
Lee posted “Besotten Jenny” at the castle and “Bochebuster” at the bridge. The meager force’s ranks were swollen by a number of the French prisoners who had taken arms from the armory — and even one wounded SS officer who decided to switch sides. On May 5, the castle came under attack from a force of about 100-150 SS soldiers. The much smaller defending force held the SS at bay for most of May 5, until relieved in the late afternoon by a company of the 142th US Infantry Regiment. Major Gangl was killed by a sniper, but the others managed to survive. Gangl was honored posthumously as an Austrian resistance hero, while Lee got a DSC and a promotion to Captain.[**]

The Swedish power metal band Sabaton [***] often has lyrics based on actual war history and feats of wartime heroism. Their song “The Last Battle” (see below) is a pretty straight-up retelling of the event.  Kudos to the band for introducing many young(er) listeners to bits of war history they are unlikely to learn in school or from books.

The Sabaton song “The Last Battle” commemorates the Battle of Castle Itter

History is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose… (with apologies to JBS Haldane)…

[*] The castle has a musical connection: the female concert pianist and conservatory teacher Sophie Menter (a former pupil of Liszt) owned the place from 1884 until the early 1900s. Tchaikovsky was her guest at the castle and wrote works there.

[**] Mark Felton has a more detailed video here. Felton notes one other situation where a similar Wehrmacnt-US Army ad hoc coalition former against the SS — this time to rescue the precious Lipizzaner horses.

[***] Despite its superficial similarity to the Hebrew word Shabaton (sabbatical), a “sabaton” is the armored shoe or boot of a medieval suit of armor

Rosh Hashanah and the Rescue of the Danish Jews


A wonderful, healthy, and fruitful New Year to my Jewish readers.

By calendarial coincidence, the Jewish holidays for 2019 fall on or near those for 1943. Around Rosh Hashanah that year, the miraculous rescue of the Danish Jews took place. The following post is an expanded version of an earlier Facebook note.

The Danish rescue was uniquely successful among Nazi-occupied countries because of a confluence of several favorable circumstances.
(1) The Danish Jewish community was fairly small (about 7,500) and
(2) concentrated in Copenhagen, just a short boat ride away from neutral Sweden. (Today, a bridge across the Øresund connects the two countries.)
(3) Moreover, the Nazis regarded the Danes as their racial kin and ran the country as a “model protectorate”, leaving the Danish democratic government in place until well into 1943.
(4) Last but not least, the Danes and the Danish Jews had advance warning from the #2 of the occupation regime, the merchant and diplomat Georg Duckwitz (later honored as Righteous Among The Nations at Yad Vashem).

Duckwitz — an NSDAP member since 1932, but already disaffected since before the war — had learned from his superior, the Nazi plenipotentiary Werner Best, that the roundup would take place on Rosh Hashanah. Duckwitz then tipped off the Danish Social Democrat leader Hans Hedtoft, who in turn passed the word to Jewish community president C. B. Henriques and acting Chief Rabbi Marcus Melchior. The Jews went underground, and over the next few weeks were spirited aboard fishing boats by the Danish resistance (and just general Jeppe Shmø’s) and ferried to neutral Sweden. One well-known rescue group acted under the cover name of “Elsinore Sewing Club”: the Danish city Helsingør/Elsinore, with its Kronborg castle that inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, is just two nautical miles across the Ølesund straits from Helsingfors, Sweden.

The famous physicist Niels Bohr (who had a Jewish mother) stepped up to the plate as well, levering the Nobel Prize he had received from the hands of the Swedish king into an audience with the monarch. Bohr pleaded with him for Sweden to publicly declare its willingness to accept Jewish refugees. Sweden had in fact been quietly doing this since 1942 for Jewish refugees from Norway, but now, on October 2, a proclamation welcoming them was read out on the Swedish radio. Whether this was thanks to Bohr’s intercession, to Hans Hedtoft’s similar démarche with the Swedish ambassador in Denmark, or would have happened anyway is a matter of dispute among historians, but Bohr’s effort certainly cannot have hurt.

The Danish rescuers played with an unusually good hand of cards. Still, this would have been for naught were it not for their determination to make the most of it. In doing so, they achieved an incredible result: over 99% of Danish Jews survived the war. (About 500, mostly elderly, Jews were arrested, but owing to pressure from Danish authorities, they were sent to the Theresienstadt Ghetto rather than extermination camps, and emissaries from the International Red Cross were allowed to check on their welfare. All except 52 of the Danish Theresienstadt inmates survived the war.[*])

The role of Werner Best in this whole affair is an enigma. After the war, Best escaped execution by convincing the Danish courts that he had quietly allowed Duckwitz to thwart the deportations. Yet he not only had been informed of goings-on at the Wannsee Conference, but had eagerly organized transports from France before his transfer to Denmark. Why this sudden change of heart where it came to the Danish Jews? I would argue the key lies in a 1942 Best memorandum (published anonymously on account of its explosive contents[**]) titled Herrenschicht oder Führungsvolk? (“master caste or leadership people?”). In the course of an argument drawing parallels with the Roman empire, Best not just pleaded for an occupation policy (at least in the West) based more on persuasion than on coercion and exploitation, but already then posited German loss of the war as a realistic possibility. As I see it, by September 1943 Best probably considered the war lost, and wanted to create himself a ‘life insurance policy’ through quietly giving Duckwitz free rein.[***] (Omission, rather than commission, afforded Best a measure of deniability if Duckwitz were found out and the Gestapo bloodhounds unleashed on him.)

Let us raise a glass of Aquavit to the courageous and resourceful Danish rescuers. Skøl and Shana Tova!

[*] As a sad reflection on the unseen prices paid for any negotiation with such a diabolical regime: unbeknownst to the Danes, other Theresienstadt inmates had been sent to their deaths in Auschwitz to create more room for the Danish inmates. The Theresienstadt ghetto was originally an army fortress town founded in the late 18th century by Habsburg emperor Joseph II (who named itafter his mother, Empress Maria Theresia). It had room for about a brigade’s worth of soldiers and their dependents, but was massively overcrowded with the 40,000+ Jews held there.

[**] The substance of the memorandum was dedicated to comparisons between the Third Reich and the Roman Empire, and how (in Best’s vision) to avoid the same fate as the latter.

[***] He may also have concluded it was a lost cause trying to convince the Danes they had a Jewish problem that could only be solved through deportation.

RIP Stanislav Petrov, “The Man Who Saved The World”

NPR (via Instapundit) has a long and well-written article about the demise (not previously reported) of a Soviet missile control officer who probably prevented a nuclear world war in 1983.

My brief summary: Podpolkovnik [Lt. Col.] Stanislav Petrov was on duty that night at a missile defense monitoring station, watching out for launches of American nuclear ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missiles).

That night, suddenly the computer howled an alarm that five missiles had been launched. Estimated time to impact: 20 minutes. 
He was to pass the warning up the chain of command, which would have led to a mass launch of Soviet nuclear ICBMs, and World War Three.

Petrov sensed something wasn’t adding up.

He had been trained to expect an all-out nuclear assault from the U.S., so it seemed strange that the satellite system was detecting only a few missiles being launched. And the system itself was fairly new. He didn’t completely trust it.

So instead of doing what he had been ordered, he ordered a check for computer malfunction. If his hunch was wrong, he’d have lost precious minutes for a preemptive retaliatory strike — “get the missiles off before the rockets impact on the launchers”.

But sure enough, there had been a malfunction.

He was given a reprimand for falsifying his logbook, but not otherwise punished. Presumably even his superiors realized how close the world had been to nuclear conflagration had it not been for Petrov’s cool-headed judgment.

Petrov’s actions were the subject of a 2015 docudrama, presented by Kevin Costner: “The Man Who Saved The World” :
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2277106/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

But Petrov never considered himself a hero: 
“That was my job,” he said. “But they were lucky it was me on shift that night.”

By coincidence (the incident wasn’t reported in the media at the time), Iron Maiden’s 1984 album “Powerslave” contained a song about a near-miss nuclear standoff: “Two Minutes To Midnight”. Let me end with that, and salute Podpolkovnik Petrov.