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During a month devoted to Group Writing on service, it is fitting to speak of Witold Pilecki, of whom I briefly wrote once before on Ricochet, whose example of service to his country and to all humanity serves as an inspiration to all of us.
A life story so dramatic and improbable as to sound like fiction (perhaps lifted from an Alan Furst novel). A Pole who fought against Russians, Germans, Nazis and Communists, a man who volunteered for imprisonment in Auschwitz, organized resistance cells, who escaped from the camp to alert his fellow Poles and the Western Allies about the mass murder of the Jews and urge them (unsuccessfully) to destroy Auschwitz and liberate its captives. Murdered by communists, for 40 years his surviving family suffered, his deeds, and even existence, extinguished in his homeland and little known elsewhere.
Born in 1901 in the remote Karelian region of northern Russia where his family was relocated after participating in the unsuccessful Polish uprising of 1863-4 against Czarist Russia (his father spent seven years in Siberia for his role), Pilecki was raised as a Polish patriot. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, young Witold made his way to what was then German-occupied Poland. With the collapse of Germany and amid Russia’s turmoil at the end of the war, Poland regained the independence it lost in 1795. For the next two years, Poland and the new Soviet Union fought a war in which advantage swung wildly; at one point Polish forces entering Kiev, and later the Soviets on the verge of taking Warsaw. The Poles eventually prevailed, preserving their independence. Witold fought throughout, twice receiving the Cross of Valour for bravery.
In the period between the world wars, Pilecki operated a small estate, started a community agricultural club, engaged in local social work, and indulged his passion for writing poetry and painting. He also married and had a son and daughter.
With war looming in the summer of 1939, Pilecki was mobilized as a platoon commander. When the Germans attacked on September 1, 1939, Witold and his command were plunged into heavy combat against both Nazis and the Soviet forces who invaded on September 17. By the end of the month, Poland was overrun and the Nazis and Soviets divided the country, leaving Warsaw within the German zone. Towards the end of 1939 Pilecki, still in Warsaw, became one of the first members of the underground resistance which eventually transformed itself into the Polish Home Army.
The first camp at Auschwitz was opened by the Germans in June 1940. Knowing only that the Nazis were conducting roundups of Poles and sending them to the new camp, and with the Home Army uncertain as to its purpose, Pilecki proposed infiltrating to collect intelligence. The plan approved, he took the identity of another Pole presumed killed in September 1939 (it turned out he was not dead, leading to another hard-to-believe series of events too long to recount here) and prepared himself. On September 19, 1940, the Germans conducted a roundup in the area of Warsaw where Pilecki resided and he made sure to be captured.
The Auschwitz that Pilecki and the other 2,000 Poles in his transport (divided into groups of 100 upon arrival) entered in September 1940 was not yet the megaplex of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the extermination camp with its gas chambers not becoming operational until the fall of 1942 when mass transports of Jews began arriving. The initial inmates were a mixture of political prisoners, Gypsies, Jews, members of the Polish intelligentsia, and Russian POWs. They were put to work constructing the next phase of the camp with death constantly arriving via malnutrition, disease, beatings, random and planned executions by sadistic guards, through medical experiments conducted by Nazi doctors, or experiments with poison gases (with Russian POWs as the preferred subjects) as the Germans worked diligently to perfect the optimum techniques for industrial-scale murder. By December 1941, only six of Pilecki’s original group of 100 remained alive. Over the life of the entire camp complex between 1 and 1.5 million people would be murdered before the Russian army arrived in January 1945.
Amidst this horror, Witold Pilecki began his work. Initially appalled by the apathy of many of the Polish inmates, he set to work, “A simple thought kept nagging me. Stir up everyone and get this mass of people moving.” His objectives to provide intelligence to the resistance and establish an underground organization designed to keep up morale, distribute food and clothing, and prepare for an uprising. Pilecki was eventually to organize several hundred prisoners into five-person cells, establishing a communication network to smuggle reports out to Warsaw which were forwarded to the Polish government in exile in London. He came close to dying twice, contracting typhoid and pneumonia under the horrible conditions, while many of those closest to him perished. You can watch the recollections (recorded in 1994) of a member of one of the cells organized by Pilecki here.
Pilecki carefully noted the horrendous crimes he witnessed, the growth of the camp, and construction of the gas chambers. His final report, written in 1945, recently became available in English under the title The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery. Intended as a formal report to the Polish Army it contains an unusual note at its start:
So, I am to write down the driest of facts, which is what my friends want me to do.
They have told me: “The more you stick to the bare facts without any kind of commentary, the more valuable it all will be.”
Well, here I go . . . but we were not made out of wood, let alone stone, though it sometimes seemed as if even a stone would have broken out in a sweat.
His initial reaction to the camp:
“So they’ve put us in a lunatic asylum!” the thought ran through my brain. “How fiendish“. I was still thinking of earthly categories.
Pilecki was quickly disabused of that notion:
How naive we were there in faraway Warsaw about the Poles who had been shipped off to the camps.
Here on the ground you didn’t need to be a “political” to lose your life.
They killed whoever was at hand.
The first thing was a question thrown out in German by a striped man with a club: “Hey you, what’s your civilian job?“
Replying priest, judge, lawyer, at that time meant being beaten to death.
The ongoing horror of Auschwitz tested everyone:
Camp was a proving ground of character. Some – slithered into a moral swamp. Others – chiseled themselves a character of the finest crystal.
As violence escalated and resistance inside the camp increased, the net closed on Pilecki and several cells were uncovered by the Nazis. Convinced of the need for the Polish Home Army to attack the camp and liberate its inmates he decided to escape in order to make the case for the assault in person. After two and a half years in the camp, on April 26, 1943, Pilecki and two companions managed to escape though Witold was shot and wounded in the process.
It took four months for Pilecki to carefully make his way across occupied Poland, before reaching Warsaw. To his bitter disappointment, the proposal for the attack was not endorsed by the Home Army leadership which lacked the arms, ammunition, and transport to carry it out. However, the Poles attempted to gain logistical support for the operation from the British, requesting bombers and planes to carry airborne troops. They sent Pilecki’s initial 11-page report to the British who dismissed it, believing the report to be a gross exaggeration.
Pilecki remained in Warsaw, commanding a company during the Home Army’s Uprising in August and September of 1944 (often confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April and May of 1943 – see the note below for more details). In June 1944, the Soviets launched a massive assault on the Germans in what is now Belarus, shattering the Nazi front. By the end of July, the Soviet army was within a dozen miles of Warsaw and the Home Army thought the time ripe for an uprising against the Nazis, which began on August 1 with the expectation that the Russians would be in the city within a few days. Stalin, in no mood to have Soviet armies entering a Warsaw liberated by anti-communist Poles, ordered a halt in order to let the Germans wipe out the Home Army. A furious Hitler redirected German units bound for the front to Warsaw with orders to kill every man, woman, and child and tens of thousands were slaughtered in the next few weeks until the Nazis realized their brutality was only making the resistance fiercer (200,000 Poles were eventually to die) and revoked the “all must die” order.
With Soviet forces stationary and American and British proposals to resupply the Poles by air blocked by Stalin, who refused permission for planes to land on Soviet territory to refuel, the Home Army was in a hopeless situation. Block by block the fighting continued for two months with Pilecki’s company in the center of the struggle until the area controlled by the Home Army was reduced to a few streets. In his epic account, Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw, Norman Davies describes Pilecki’s role in stymying the initial German counterattack:
. . . a company led by Capt. Roman [the name Pilecki was known by] repeatedly invested a strategic building which overlooked the traffic on the boulevard Roman . . . Almost every day during the first two weeks of the month, he captured, lost, and recaptured this building. Repeatedly driven out, he repeatedly returned and with deadly cunning repeatedly expelled the German defenders . . . so long as he threatened this one vital pressure point, the German command was constantly made to feel insecure. One is tempted to suggest that a single company could have won the Rising a fortnight’s reprieve.
To finally end the uprising the Germans agreed to treat surrendered Home Army members as prisoners of war (elsewhere in Europe during the war the Nazis summarily executed resistance fighters). The remnants of the Home Army surrendered on October 5 with Pilecki sent to a POW camp in Germany, where he was liberated by the Americans on April 28, 1945. But his service was not yet over.
Making his way to Italy, he joined the Polish Army Corps, which had fought its way up the peninsula as part of the Allied Army over the prior eighteen months. Working in its Intelligence Section, he volunteered to go back to Warsaw, where the Soviets and their Polish Communist puppets were tightening their grip. Arriving in December 1945, he provided intelligence to the Polish Government in Exile in London, organizing resistance against the communists until arrested by the Soviets on May 8, 1947. Beaten and tortured, subjected to a show trial in March 1948, and secretly executed on May 25, his wife and two children were never notified of his fate, left hoping for years he was still alive.
Two years later, a former prison guard who watched over Witold during his imprisonment approached the Pilecki family, telling them “I want to help you because your father was a saint . . . Under his influence, I changed my life. I do not harm anyone anymore.” There was little help elsewhere; because of the familial association, Pilecki’s wife and children had limited educational and job opportunities until the fall of the Communist regime.
On October 1, 1990, a year after the overthrow of the communist government, a Polish court exonerated Pilecki of the charges he was convicted of in 1948. In 2006, Witold Pilecki was awarded the Medal of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honor and in 2013 posthumously promoted to Colonel. Despite continued efforts, his burial place and remains have yet to be identified.
Pilecki is also the subject of a Polish film, Smierc Rotmistzra Pileckiego (The Death of Captain Pilecki) and each year, on the anniversary of his death, marches are held in several Polish cities to honor his heroism.
His 83-year-old son, Andrzej, recently spoke of his father’s advice to he and his sister when they were children:
“We should live worthwhile lives, to respect others and nature. He wrote to my sister to watch out for every little ladybug, to not step on it but place it instead on a leaf because everything has been created for a reason.”
Of his father’s rehabilitation, Andrzej says:
“There was a ban on speaking about my father. There’s been a rebirth now . . . I don’t have a moment’s peace at home because there are constantly phone calls and the like. That makes me happy.”
In the forward to The Auschwitz Volunteer, Michael Sudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, writes:
“When God created the human being, God had in mind that we should all be like Captain Witold Pilecki, of blessed memory.”
Note on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: Shortly after occupying Warsaw, the Nazis forced the Jews of the city to live in a restricted area which quickly became terribly overcrowded, short of food and long on disease. In late summer 1942, the Nazis began transporting Warsaw Jews to what they were told was resettlement in the East but in reality was the extermination camp at Treblinka, where they were killed within hours of arrival (eventually more than 800,000 Jews, along with some gypsies, were to be murdered there). When the remaining Jews realized the true destination of the transports they undertook a desperate revolt, armed sparingly with revolvers and homemade explosives, which initially surprised the Germans, but was eventually brutally suppressed (fewer than one hundred of those in the ghetto at the time of the revolt survived the war, fewer than seventy of those transported to Treblinka survived).