Heroism lives everywhere. It lives in poverty, in adversity and in illness. It lives in war and it lives in espionage, just as it lives in fiction, but I challenge you to find a hero, real or invented, with more courage than Witold Pilecki.
There are times when fictional heroes simply can’t match the bravery of real human beings, and I have to tell you this: I would not have the guts to do what this man did.
Pilecki was a Polish army officer who, after the German invasion, became a member of the Secret Polish Army. In 1940, he volunteered to enter the German concentration camp at Oswiecim, where thousands of Polish Jews were being sent following round-ups on the streets of nearby Krakow and other cities. Oswiecim was thought at the time to be an internment camp, but later became better known as Auschwitz. Today, it’s a drab, nondescript town. A place you might not want to live in unless you have no choice.
When you leave the railway station, there’s no sign indicating how to find the most notorious extermination camp in history. You have to ask the bored woman at the ticket desk, who might or might not decide to tell you and when you eventually find the camp, after walking through an ordinary, dull suburban street, you’re a little shocked to find this most iconic murder site wedged in among small industrial units, apartment blocks and assorted car-repair shops.
But when eventually you walk into the death camp, you’re in no doubt what this is. A place where people were systematically dehumanised, processed, murdered and in many cases reprocessed.
Carrying a false identity card in the name Tomasz Serafinski, Pilecki went out on the streets of Warsaw during a German round-up of Jews and was arrested by soldiers of the Wehrmacht, who tortured him before sending him to the death camp with 2,000 other civilians whose only crime was being Jewish.
Auschwitz wasn’t nearly as homogeneous as we sometimes believe, and the Jews not nearly as passive. Some other time, we might have a chance to talk about the fierce resistance to the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto, which of course was ultimately crushed by sheer force of numbers, but for now, I’ll just point out that the camp was full of resistance movements, even though most of those who passed through its gates were ultimately exterminated by the Germans.
Auschwitz I was (and is) like a little town, unlike the extension, Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, the construction of which didn’t begin until October 1941. It was a former Polish army camp, designed for soldiers to live and work in, while Birkenau is nothing more than a purpose-built factory to murder people.
This is the place Witold Pilecki entered. A place of horror. A place of random, casual violence. A place where some thug in a uniform might kill you on the spot because you were a Jew or because he didn’t like the look on your face. A place where mass shootings occurred to the point where even the Waffen SS killers began to lose their minds as they — literally — waded in the blood of their victims.
And still, appallingly, it was not yet a place where mass murder on an industrial scale had begun. That wasn’t until the Wannsee conference of January 1942 when Reinhard Heydrich presented his plan for the murder of all European Jews, the Final Solution to a problem that existed in the minds of evil madmen. Only then did the full horror of Birkenau, Maidanek, Sobibor and Treblinka became a reality.
Into this darkness stepped Witold Pilecki, willingly, and there he remained for two and a half years. He set up the ZOW: Zwiazek Organizacji Wojskowej, the Union of Military Organisations, which eventually drew in the various resistance groups in the camp, and he built it all on a cell structure so that no more than five members knew each other.
From March 1941 on, Pilecki’s reports were being forwarded to the Allies, in which he described mass murder. Therefore, from this point on, neither the British nor the American High Command were in any doubt as to what the Germans were doing to the Jews of Europe. Pilecki remained convinced for a further two years that the Allies would either bomb the camp walls, allowing the inmates to escape, or else conduct an air-drop of Free Polish paratrooops, but eventually, by April 1943, he realised that neither Churchill nor Roosevelt cared about those who were being slaughtered in the extermination camps of Europe.
Eventually, Pilecki managed to get a job in a bakery outside the electrified fence and when he was assigned to a night shift, along with two others, Jan Redzej and Edward Cieselski, he beat up a German guard and escaped.
The Allies never accepted what Pilecki reported and never made any attempt to liberate Auschwitz.
Most men would rest after the things Pilecki had done, but he seems to have been made of different stuff, and so, in 1944, he joined the Warsaw uprising where he fought first as a private soldier and later, when his true rank became known, as an officer. When the uprising was defeated, he became a prisoner of war until Poland was liberated.
He still wasn’t satisfied and joined the 2nd Polish Corps, fighting in Italy.
That was when the final betrayal happened and the Allies revealed that they had no intention of supporting the Polish government in exile. Poland was to be handed over to the Soviets as part of the deal Churchill and Roosevelt made with Stalin at Yalta.
Still undeterred, Pilecki returned to Poland to collect information on Russian atrocities, but eventually, in 1947, he was captured by the Polish communists and interrogated by Col Józef Rózanski, ironically a Polish Jew. Even more ironically, testimony at his trial was provided by Józef Cyrankiewicz, a future Prime Minister, who had also survived Auschwitz.
Following the trial and conviction, Witold Polecki was killed in prison on the 25th May 1948. He was 47. His murderer was another Holocaust survivor, Staff Sergeant Piotr Smietanski.
In 2006, Witold Pilecki was conferred posthumously with the Order of the White Eagle, the most prestigious honour in Poland. Sadly, the Polish people who murdered him refused to reveal where they buried him.