I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In 1940, rumours started to circulate that terrible cruelties were being visited upon prisoners in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death complex. However, what was needed was eyewitness accounts not just rumours.
As Nazis were arresting Poles on the streets of Warsaw, Witold Pilecki blended into the crowd of captured people. It was a deliberate action aimed at getting inside, so he could bear witness to the horrific actions taking place behind the barbed wire.
Poland’s Secret Army
In September 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland, and 38-year-old Witold Pilecki joined the Polish underground resistance (Tajna Armia Polska).
It wasn’t long before rumours started to emerge about the terrible things going on in concentration camps on Polish territory. Pilecki went to his commanding officer with the outline for an outrageous scheme.
Under the false name of Tomasz Serafinski he got himself arrested in Warsaw in September 1940. As anticipated, the Nazis put him into Auschwitz, which suited his purposes well because he also wanted to get information to the outside world about the atrocities happening inside the death camp.
Another part of his plan was to try to organize a mass break-out of prisoners.
Concentration Camp Guard Brutality
The guards at Auschwitz were drawn from the ranks of the Schutzstaffel, or SS. They were indoctrinated into the belief that they were the elite of humankind. Along with that, of course, came the doctrine that all other races, and particularly Jews, were sub-human.
About a month after Pilecki arrived at Auschwitz a man escaped. The reaction of the SS guards was monumentally vicious. All the inmates were made to stand in the cold on the parade ground from noon until 9 p.m. Any prisoners who moved were dragged out of line and shot. By the time this lesson in dominance was over more than 200 prisoners had died of exposure or bullets.
After he was rounded up in Warsaw with other Poles, Pilecki wrote later that “What really annoyed me the most was the passivity of this group of Poles. All those picked up were already showing signs of crowd psychology, the result being that our whole crowd behaved like a herd of passive sheep.” Now, he understood the power of fear.
But, Pilecki was not daunted by the SS violence; he was determined to organize the inmates into some form of resistance.
The Nazi Killing Machine
When Witold Pilecki arrived in Auschwitz it was primarily a detention camp. His work was to help build new huts that would house the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were about to be rounded up and sent there to be murdered.
He was able to get three reports out of the camp describing what was going on. His third report is the most detailed account of life inside the camp and, in 2012, an English translation was published under the title, The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery.
Pilecki built up a network of small intelligence-gathering cells. None knew of the existence of the others, so that if there was a breach the whole network would not be rolled up.
His group was called the Union of Military Organization and its acronym in Polish was ZOW. By 1942, it’s believed there were 500 prisoners in Auschwitz who belonged to the ZOW network. From the information they gathered, Pilecki smuggled his reports out to the underground, eventually making their way to the Polish government-in-exile in London.
However, Pilecki’s reports were largely not believed. He described activities so gross they were beyond human imagining and those reading them felt he must be exaggerating.
Escape from Auschwitz
After 947 days inside the hellhole, Pilecki felt it was time to escape. He wanted to organize an armed assault on the camp by the Polish underground that would be supported on the inside by his ZOW network.
One day he and two others were assigned to work in the bakery, which was outside the wire. When the SS guard was occupied elsewhere they cut a telephone line, burst open a back door, and ran for it.
Pilecki got back to Warsaw and pitched his plan to attack the death camp. But the underground leaders refused to authorize such a mission; they felt life inside could not be as horrible as his descriptions would have it.
Three Auschwitz monsters. Commandant Richard Baer (left) escaped and lived as a forester for about 20 years. Eventually, he was tracked down but he died of a heart attack while awaiting trial. Josef Mengele (centre) carried out medical experiments on prisoners. He escaped to South America and was never found. Commandant Rudolph Hoess (right) was caught, tried as a war criminal, and executed. They look as though they are having a jolly good time.
More Action for Pilecki
Witold Pilecki took part in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and was captured by the Germans. He was not identified as an Auschwitz escapee because he had used an alias there. He was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp that was liberated by American forces.
Eventually, he returned to Poland to find that the evil Nazi overseers of his country had been replaced by equally evil overseers from the Soviet Union. He returned to the intelligence-gathering trade, this time spying on the Soviets.
Jacek Pawlowicz is with Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance. He says Pilecki was captured by the Soviets in May 1947. He was subjected to horrific torture and put on a show trial.
The verdict was inevitable and, in May 1948, he was executed with a shot to the back of the head. He was buried in an unmarked grave whose exact location is not known.
- To get into Auschwitz, Witold Pilecki adopted the identity of a man called Tomasz Serafinski who was thought to have died defending Poland against the German invasion in 1939. However, it turned out that Serafinski was still very much alive and when the SS noted one of their prisoners was missing they went looking for him. They found Tomasz Serafinski and arrested him on Christmas Day in 1943. He, of course, denied any knowledge of ever being inside Auschwitz, even though the Gestapo tried to beat a confession out of him. He lacked the forearm tattoo that would have marked him as someone who had been a prisoner in Auschwitz. Eventually, the thugs in uniform gave up and Serafinski was sent on his way.
- The Soviet leaders buried the story of Witold Pilecki along with his body. It wasn’t until the Soviet overlords were tossed out in 1989 that Pilecki’s heroism came to light. In 1990, he was exonerated of all charges.
- “Meet the Polish Resistance Leader Who Voluntarily Entered Auschwitz to First Expose Its Horrors to the World.” Erin Kelly, All That’s Interesting, October 8, 2018
- “The Man Who Volunteered for Auschwitz.” David de Sola, The Atlantic, October 5, 2012.
- “Inmate 4859. The Death Camp Volunteer – Beyond Bravery.” Warhistoryonline.com, undated.
- “Witold Pilecki – The Incredible Story of The Man Who Volunteered for Auschwitz.” Damian Lucjan, Warhistoryonline.com, June 7, 2017.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Nell Rose from England on November 15, 2018:
Ouch! the Irony!
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on November 14, 2018:
Actually, Witold was born on what was, at the time, Russian territory but of Polish parents.
Nell Rose from England on November 14, 2018:
Wow! I had never heard of Witold Pilecki ! But what a hero! How ironic and sad to think that the russians believed him to be a traitor, so not fair. Fascinating history, and just one more who should be honoured for his bravery!
Liz Westwood from UK on November 14, 2018:
This is a very interesting and brave story.