Witold Pilecki, a 39-year old veteran of the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921 who fought against the initial Nazi Germany’s invasion and a member of the Polish resistance, voluntarily allowed himself to be captured by the Germans and sent to Auschwitz in 1940. Pilecki’s mission was to allow himself to be arrested and, once inside Auschwitz, to collect intelligence for the Polish resistance in the country and the government-in-exile in London, and to organize a resistance from inside the camp.
During the next three years, Pilecki was involved in one of the most dangerous intelligence-gathering and resistance operations of the war. And began recruiting members for an underground resistance group that he organized into a coherent movement. He began sending information about what was going on inside the camp and confirming that the Nazi’s were seeking the extermination of the Jews as early as 1941. Pilecki used a courier system that the Polish Resistance operated throughout occupied Europe to channel the reports to the Allies. Documents released from the Polish Archives that provided details of these reports again raised questions as to why the Allies, particularly Winston Churchill, never did anything to put an end to the atrocities being committed that they learned of so early in the war.
By 1942, Pilecki’s resistance group had learned of the existence of the gas chambers and began work on several plans to liberate Auschwitz, including one in which the RAF would bomb the walls or Free Polish paratroopers would fly in from Britain. In 1943, when Pilecki realized that the Allies did not have plans to liberate the camp, he escaped with two other prisoners after he voluntarily spent 2½ years at the camp smuggling out its darkest secrets to the Allies. The documents released from the Polish Archives also included a Gestapo manhunt alert following Pilecki’s escape.
In 1944, Pilecki was captured while fighting in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 and spent the rest of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp. He joined the Free Polish troops in Italy in July of 1945 and agreed to return to Poland and gather intelligence on its takeover by the Soviets. Pilecki was caught by the Polish Communist regime, tortured, interrogated on his espionage, and executed following a trial at which he was given three death sentences. Note that relatively high number of the communist judicial system in Poland were Jews. Pilecki was executed on May 25, 1948 at Warsaw’s Mokotow Prison.
Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, said that Pilecki was “an example of inexplicable goodness at a time of inexplicable evil. There is ever-growing awareness of Poles helping Jews in the Holocaust, and how they paid with their lives, like Pilecki. We must honor these examples and follow them today in the parts of the world where there are horrors again.” He authored three reports about life inside the camp for the Polish resistance. During his incarceration, Pilecki witnessed from the inside Auschwitz’s transformation from a detention facility for political prisoners and Soviet soldiers into one of the Nazi’s deadliest killing machines.
The details of Pilecki’s bravery could not truly emerge until after the collapse of Communism in 1989. He received posthumously the Order of Polonia Restituta in 1995 and the Order of the White Eagle, the highest Polish decoration in 2006.
An English translation of Pilecki’s third and most comprehensive report — a primary source for this article — was recently published as a book titled The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery . It is a fascinating first-hand account of virtually all aspects of life inside the camp. The original document is in the custody of the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust in London.
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