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Witold Pilecki

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.


Previously: Auschwitz

17 replies on “Witold Pilecki”

Some man. Difficult to understand why you would put yourself in that position, willingly allowing yourself to get arrested by the Germans.
I remember reading a fascinating story of an escape from Auschwitz. by a man named Kazimierz Piechowski and three others. One of them (Stanis?aw Jaster )carried out a report written by Witold. He would later become a personal emissary of Pilecki.

The dressed up as SS soldiers and drove straight out the gates in an SS car. It looked like they were going to be stopped at the gate too and one of them yelled at the guard to open the gate now. They had guns with them and were going to kill themselves if they didn’t escape. Some bravery.

Another example of great heroism is Auschwitz prisoner Maximilian Kolbe “who offered to exchange places with a fellow Pole who was among a group of ten sentenced to be starved to death”.

What do you try to tell us with this story??

A hero he was, no doubt. But is your post about heroism, about the ignorance of the allied forces, about the Poles (and apparantly Jews) and how they treated one of their own?

Or is it just general musings about achievements in history without any opinion as such?

You can do better.

I’m trying to tell a story. That’s all. Just a story,. It’s just a story about a hero. Stories about heroes don’t always have to achieve things. They don’t always have a point. Relax a little.

Been reading eh Bock? :D
Still though, as exceptional as this chap was, my vote for “most heroic” goes to the Japanese vice-consul to Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara. Schindler saved 801 Jews from the Nazis during the war; Chiune saved somewhere between six and ten thousand by granting them exit visas in direct violation of orders from Tokyo and arranging for the trans-Siberian railway to accept them as passengers. He kept issuing visas up till they closed the consulate until he was out of Lithuania, literally throwing them from the train windows as it left. Since he was a fairly junior official acting against orders from Tokyo, they basically fired him and he lived the rest of his life in penury, the Japanese government not apologising to his family until 1990 (four years after he died), and not even his neighbours knowing what he’d done until his funeral when a very large Israeli contingent turned up (he’d been honoured by Israel in 1985).

Nice to see someone figuring out that the right thing to do was say “fuck it” to the boss and actually going through with it; not so nice to see them paying so heavily for it though :(

No. I wasn’t reading that. It arose from a personal visit to Auschwitz and a conversation this evening with a friend. The photos and the link from that visit are here. Why would you assume I got the notion from some other website? A bit snide of you Mark, if you’ll forgive my saying so.

a google image search of him will show, that that image, is used by dozens of sites. there is really only a handful of images of him available.

Fascinating story, bock, I’m constantly amazed at the great heights we can reach when we don’t know better.

It never occured to me before that poland lost the war.
Odd when you think that the British and the French went to war to support the Poles.

Fascinating, but why on earth are people knocking you about this story?
In my opinion it’s one of those stories that should be told.
Good for you Bock!

why on earth are people knocking you about this story?

I wasn’t knocking him! I just thought it was a bit of synchronicity that we’d been reading the same article. Feck’s sake.


great article. Witold Pilecki, may you rest in Peace. I’m always dumbstruck when I think about what happened back then in those dark times; I wonder how many stories similar to Witold’s never got told?

An amazing story and a great post.I have been to a few of the horrendous “sites” mentioned above and I just find myself wondering why anybody might have a problem with anything written here?

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