I came across the story of this unsung hero. His story is an indictment against the Nazi regime but also against the ignorance and ‘naivety’ of the allied forces. If they just would have listened to him so many could have been saved.
Witold Pilecki was a Polish soldier, a rittmeister of the Polish Cavalry during the Second Polish Republic, the founder of the Secret Polish Army resistance group in German-occupied Poland in November 1939, and a member of the underground Home Army, which was formed in February 1942. As the author of Witold’s Report, the first intelligence report on Auschwitz concentration camp, Pilecki enabled the Polish government-in-exile to convince the Allies that the Holocaust.
Witold Pilecki (13 May 1901 – 25 May 1948)was a Polish soldier, a rittmeister of the Polish Cavalry during the Second Polish Republic, the founder of the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska)resistance group in German-occupied Poland in November 1939, and a member of the underground Home Army (Armia Krajowa), which was formed in February 1942. He was the author of Witold’s Report, the first comprehensive Allied intelligence report on Auschwitz concentration camp and the Holocaust.
During World War II, he volunteered for a Polish resistance operation to get imprisoned in the Auschwitz death camp in order to gather intelligence and escape. While in the camp, Pilecki organized a resistance movement and as early as 1941, informed the Western Allies of Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz atrocities. He escaped from the camp in 1943 after nearly two and a half years of imprisonment. Pilecki took part in the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944.He remained loyal to the London-based Polish government-in-exile after the Soviet-backed communist takeover of Poland and was arrested in 1947 by the Stalinist secret police (Urząd Bezpieczeństwa) on charges of working for “foreign imperialism”, thought to be a euphemism for MI6.He was executed after a show trial in 1948. Until 1989, information about his exploits and fate was suppressed by the Polish communist regime.
In September 1940, Pilecki didn’t know exactly what was going on in Auschwitz, but he knew someone had to find out. He would spend two and a half years in the prison camp, smuggling out word of the methods of execution and interrogation. He would eventually escape and author the first intelligence report on the camp.
The Mystery Of Auschwitz
In the early years of the war, little was known about the area near the town Germans called Auschwitz.
Poland was in a state of chaos. It was divided in half — Nazi Germany claiming one side, Soviet Russia on the other. The Polish resistance had gone underground.
Pilecki wanted to infiltrate the Auschwitz camp, but he had difficulty getting commanders to sign off on the mission. At the time, it was thought of as POW camp.
“They didn’t realize the information from inside the camp was that vital,” says Ryszard Bugajski, a Polish filmmaker who directed the 2006 film The Death of Captain Pilecki.
Pilecki was eventually cleared to insert himself into a street round-up of Poles in Warsaw on Sept. 19, 1940. Upon arrival, he learned Auschwitz was far from anything the Resistance had imagined.
Life As A Number
“Together with a hundred other people, I at least reached the bathroom,” Pilecki’s Auschwitz report reads. “Here we gave everything away into bags, to which respective numbers were tied. Here our hair of head and body were cut off, and we were slightly sprinkled by cold water. I got a blow in my jaw with a heavy rod. I spat out my two teeth. Bleeding began. From that moment we became mere numbers — I wore the number 4859.”
That was a small and early number for a camp that would — one year later — see numbers in the 15,000s.
.Here’s Pilecki’s description of what a German officer told him: ” ‘Whoever will live longer — it means he steals. You will be placed in a special commando, where you will live short.’ This was aimed to cause as quick a mental breakdown as possible.”
Smuggling Out Word Of The Horrors Within
Pilecki was assigned to backbreaking work — carrying rocks in a wheelbarrow. But he also managed to gather intelligence on the camp and smuggle messages out with prisoners who escaped. SS soldiers assigned Poles to take their laundry into town, and sometimes messages could be smuggled along with the dirty clothes to be passed to the underground Polish army.
“The underground army was completely in disbelief about the horrors,” Storozynski explains. “About ovens, about gas chambers, about injections to murder people — people didn’t believe him. They thought he was exaggerating.”
Pilecki also hoped to organize an attack and mass escape from the camp. But no order could be procured for such a plan from Polish high command.
“We were waiting for an order, as we understood that without such one — although it would be a beautiful firework and unexpected for the world and for Poland — we could not agree to do that,” Pilecki wrote.
For the next two and a half years, Pilecki slowly worked to feed his reports up the Polish chain of command to London.
“And in London,” Storozynski says, “the Polish government in exile told the British and the Americans, ‘You need to do something. You need to bomb the train tracks going to these camps. Or we have all these Polish paratroopers — drop them inside the camp. Let them help these people break out.’ But the British and the Americans just wouldn’t do anything.”
At Auschwitz, while working in various kommandos and surviving pneumonia, Pilecki organized an underground Union of Military Organizations (Związek Organizacji Wojskowej, ZOW).
Many smaller underground organizations at Auschwitz eventually merged with ZOW.ZOW’s tasks were to improve inmate morale, provide news from outside, distribute extra food and clothing to members, set up intelligence networks and train detachments to take over the camp in the event of a relief attack by the Home Army, arms airdrops or an airborne landing by the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade based in Britain.
ZOW provided the Polish underground with invaluable information about the camp. From October 1940, ZOW sent reports to Warsaw,and beginning in March 1941, Pilecki’s reports were being forwarded via the Polish resistance to the British government in London. In 1942, Pilecki’s resistance movement was also broadcasting details on the number of arrivals and deaths in the camp and the inmates’ conditions using a radio transmitter that was built by camp inmates. The secret radio station, built over seven months using smuggled parts, was broadcasting from the camp until the autumn of 1942, when it was dismantled by Pilecki’s men after concerns that the Germans might discover its location because of “one of our fellow’s big mouth”
These reports were a principal source of intelligence on Auschwitz for the Western Allies. Pilecki hoped that either the Allies would drop arms or troops into the camp or that the Home Army would organize an assault on it from outside. Such plans, however, were all judged impossible to carry out. Meanwhile, the Gestapo redoubled its efforts to ferret out ZOW members, succeeding in killing many of them Pilecki decided to break out of the camp with the hope of convincing Home Army leaders personally that a rescue attempt was a valid option. When he was assigned to a night shift at a camp bakery outside the fence, he and two comrades overpowered a guard, cut the phone line and escaped on the night of 26/27 April 1943, taking with them documents stolen from the Germans.
Eventually, after nearly three years, Pilecki reported, “further stay here might be too dangerous and difficult for me.”
He planned an escape through a poorly secured back door in a bakery, where he’d managed to get a job. With a few other inmates, he ran into the night.
“Shots were fired behind us,” he wrote. “How fast we were running, it is hard to describe. We were tearing the air into rags by quick movements of our hands.”
After several days, Pilecki made contact with Home Army units.On 25 August 1943, Pilecki reached Warsaw and joined the Home Army’s intelligence department. The Home Army, after losing several operatives in reconnoitering the vicinity of the camp, including the Cichociemny Stefan Jasieński, decided that it lacked sufficient strength to capture the camp without Allied help. Pilecki’s detailed report (Raport Witolda – Witold’s Report) estimated that “By March 1943 the number [of people gassed on arrival] reached 1.5 million.”
The Home Army decided that it did not have enough force to storm the camp by itself.In 1944, the Russian army, despite being within attacking distance of the camp, showed no interest in a joint effort with the Home Army and the ZOW to free it.Until he became involved in the Warsaw Uprising, Pilecki remained in charge of coordinated ZOW and AK activities and provided what limited support he was able to offer to ZOW.
On 23 February 1944, Pilecki was promoted to cavalry captain (rotmistrz) and joined a secret anti-communist organization, NIE (in Polish: “NO or NIEpodległość – INdependence”), formed as a secret organization within the Home Army with the goal of preparing resistance against a possible Soviet occupation.
When the Warsaw Uprising broke out on 1 August 1944, Pilecki volunteered for the Kedyw’s Chrobry II group and fought in “Mazur” platoon, 1st company “Warszawianka” of the National Armed Forces.
At first, he fought in the northern city center as a simple private, without revealing his actual rank. Later, as many officers fell, he disclosed his true identity and accepted command. His forces held a fortified area called the “Great Bastion of Warsaw”. It was one of the most outlying partisan redoubts and caused considerable difficulties for German supply lines. The bastion held for two weeks in the face of constant attacks by German infantry and armor. On the capitulation of the uprising, Pilecki hid some weapons in a private apartment and went into captivity. He spent the rest of the war in German prisoner-of-war camps at Łambinowice and Murnau
After his escape, Pilecki continued to fight in the underground. But after the war, the Germans were replaced by a new occupying regime — the Soviets. Pilecki was again asked to gather intelligence, this time on the ways in which the communists were establishing themselves in Poland.
On 9 July 1945, Pilecki was liberated and soon afterwards joined the 2nd Polish Corps, which was stationed in Italy, where he wrote a monograph on Auschwitz. As relations between Poland’s London based wartime government-in-exile and the Soviet-backed Polish Committee of National Liberation worsened, in September 1945, Pilecki accepted orders from General Władysław Anders, commander of the 2nd Polish Corps to return to Poland under a false identity and gather intelligence to be sent to the government-in-exile.
Pilecki returned to Poland in October 1945, where he proceeded to organize his intelligence network.In early 1946, the Polish government-in-exile decided that the post-war political situation afforded no hope of Poland’s liberation and ordered the remaining active members of the Polish resistance (who became known as the cursed soldiers) to either return to their normal civilian lives or escape to the West. In July 1946, Pilecki was informed that his cover was blown and ordered to leave; but he declined.In April 1947, he began collecting evidence of Soviet atrocities in Poland as well as the arrest and prosecution of former members of the Home Army and Polish Armed Forces in the West, which often resulted in execution or imprisonment.
Arrest and execution
On 8 May 1947, he was arrested by the Ministry of Public Security.Prior to trial, he was repeatedly tortured.
The investigation of Pilecki’s activities was supervised by Colonel Roman Romkowski.
He was interrogated by Col. Józef Różański,
and lieutenants S. Łyszkowski, W. Krawczyński, J. Kroszel, T. Słowianek, Eugeniusz Chimczak and S. Alaborski – men who were especially infamous for their savagery. But Pilecki sought to protect other prisoners and revealed no sensitive information.
On 3 March 1948, a show trial took place.
Testimony against Pilecki was presented by a future Polish prime minister, Józef Cyrankiewicz, himself an Auschwitz survivor.
Pilecki was accused of illegal border crossing, use of forged documents, not enlisting with the military, carrying illegal arms, espionage for General Władysław Anders, espionage for “foreign imperialism” (thought to be British intelligence) and planning to assassinate several officials of the Ministry of Public Security of Poland. Pilecki denied the assassination charges, as well as espionage, although he admitted to passing information to the 2nd Polish Corps, of which he considered himself an officer and thus claimed that he was not breaking any laws. He pleaded guilty to the other charges. On 15 May, with three of his comrades, he was sentenced to death. Ten days later, on 25 May 1948, Pilecki was executed at the Mokotów Prison in Warsaw (also known as Rakowiecka Prison), by Staff Sergeant Piotr Śmietański (who was nicknamed “The Butcher of Mokotow Prison” by the inmates).
During Pilecki’s last conversation with his wife he told her: “I cannot live. They killed me. Because Oświęcim [Auschwitz] compared with them was just a trifle.” His final words before his execution were “Long live free Poland”.
Pilecki’s place of burial has never been found but is thought to be somewhere within Warsaw’s Powązki Cemetery.]After the fall of communism in Poland a symbolic gravestone was erected in his memory at Ostrowa Mazowiecka Cemetery. In 2012, Powązki Cemetery was partially excavated in an effort to find Pilecki’s remains.
Pilecki’s show trial and execution was part of a wider campaign of repression against former Home Army members and others connected with the Polish Government-in-Exile in London. In 2003, the prosecutor, Czesław Łapiński, and several others involved in the trial were charged with complicity in Pilecki’s murder. Józef Cyrankiewicz, the chief prosecution witness, was already dead, and Łapiński died in 2004, before the trial was concluded.
Witold Pilecki and all others sentenced in the show trial were rehabilitated on 1 October 1990. In 1995, he was posthumously awarded the Order of Polonia Restituta and in 2006 he received the Order of the White Eagle, the highest Polish decoration.
On 6 September 2013, he was posthumously promoted by the Minister of National Defence to the rank of Colonel.
All of these posthumous acknowledgement I think are very shallow, this man should have been heralded as a hero not massacred as a traitor.