I learnt about Witold Pilecki only by an accident, when my maternal grandfather dropped his name while talking about his former associate and then Polish Prime Minister Jozef Cyrankiewicz.
- Cyrankiewicz, he said, could’ve saved Pilecki but of course his own “hero story” could’ve been ruined.
I started asking my grandfather additional question and I learnt a few bits about this man, Witold Pilecki, who according to my grandfather’s patchy story volunteered to Auschwitz to gather intelligence for the Home Army (Polish Military Underground Organization) operating during the German occupation.
It was, I think, 1967 and Witold Pilecki as far as the communist authorities were concerned, officially never existed.
My grandfather knew Jozef Cyrankiewicz because both of them were members of PPS – Polish Socialist Party before WWII (PPS was a social-democratic party).
Cyrankiewicz was captured and sent by the Germans to Auschwitz in 1942 but my grandfather was saved from being captured by his new identity supported by false documents.
After the war, most of the members of PPS accepted the communist’s offer to join the Soviet bandwagon in exchange for good positions within the new administration and sometimes because they weren’t sure what could’ve happened to them if they refused.
This move gave the communist more legitimacy among the Western countries as well as the desperate Polish people.
Or so they thought.
The communist party members were mostly imported from the Soviet Union.
These people, officially Polish, very often could not speak the language and like the first President Boleslaw Bierut were full time NKVG (Soviet Security) employees (the real Polish communist who ended up in Russia after 1939 were mostly executed by Stalin in the 40’s).
And so PPS and PPR (Polish Worker’s Party) were amalgamated into PZPR (Polish United Worker’s Party).
My grandpa was one of those scoundrels, who joined the new organization and for the rest of his life tried to convince himself that his decision was morally justified.
He never really made it to the “top” and that is probably why he felt resentment towards Cyrankiewicz for not assisting his old comrades a little bit harder.
This is how I learnt about Witold Pilecki for the first time; my grandpa’s bitter comments made about Cyrankiewicz’s duplicity.
I started searching for some more information about Pilecki and slowly a picture emerged, which as much as it was depressing, it gave me the feeling of faith in certain moral values, which I thought were long time dead.
Witold Pilecki was rehabilitated only in 1991 and so as I was searching a few days ago for some extra materials about him, I discovered that AmericanOnLine already posted some information about him in his blog.
His information was based on Wikipedia’s entry.
There are more sources available on line but because most of them are in Polish, I decided to quote and to translate some additional and interesting aspects of Pilecki’s live story to pay a tribute to the man, who I think, deserves much more recognition.
It was 1940 the Secret Polish Army received conflicting reports about this “new facility” being built and expanded by the Germans in Oświęcim near Kraków.
The commanders of the underground, secret army were also receiving requests from the Polish Government, in exile in London; to investigate and to report about German activities around Auschwitz as the unconfirmed rumors about atrocities taking place there reached the allied forces.
Witold Pilecki, a lieutenant in the underground army, was the man who volunteered to Auschwitz.
Witold Pilecki was born in 1901 in Oluniec in Russia, where his family was exiled for taking part in the 1863 uprising against Russian occupation of Poland.
In 1910 his family moved back into the remains of their property (Pilecki family were small gentry-landowners) near Wilno (today Vilnius).
In 1918, he volunteered for the Polish Army that was being formed at that time, and then fought in the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1920.
In 1921 Pilecki took leave from the army to pass his High School Certificate exams (Matura). He attempted studying fine arts at the Stefan Batory University for a while.
Finally, he finishes Military school of Cavalry Reserve in Grudziądz and after being transferred to the Army Reserve as a second lieutenant, he takes over the farm management in his family property in Sukurcze in 1926.
He lived and worked in Sukurcze until the outbreak of WWII.
These were the happiest years of his life.
In 1931 Pilecki married Marianna Ostrowska, a teacher from Masovia.
They had two children, a son Andrew and daughter Zofia.
In the September campaign of 1939, Pilecki fought as a member of the “Prusy” army group. In November after the collapse of Polish defenses, he helped founding the Secret Polish Army, where he served as the Chief of Staff.
In August 1940 Pilecki volunteered to infiltrate Germany’s Auschwitz Concentration Camp at Oświęcim with the following objectives in mind:
Setting up of a secret organization within the camp to:
- Provide extra food and distribute clothing among organization members.
- Keep up the morale among fellow inmates and supply them with news from the outside.
- Preparing a task force to take over the camp in the eventuality of the dropping of arms or of a live force (e.g. paratroops).
- Report all of the above to the Secret Army headquarters
On September 19, 1940, with the permission of his commanding officers, he intentionally allowed himself to be captured by the Germans during a round-up in Warsaw’s suburb Żoliborz.
He arrived at Auschwitz at 10 P.M. on September 21, 1940, in the “second” Warsaw transport, under the name Tomasz Serafiński. He was registered as number 4859.
(Pilecki’s diary (1) translated from Polish)
They made us run straight ahead towards the thicker concentration of lights. Further towards the destination (the SS troopers) ordered one of us to run to the pole on the side of the road and immediately a series from a submachine gun was sent after him. Dead.
Ten other inmates were pulled out at random from the marching column and shot with pistols while still running to demonstrate to us the idea of “collective reprisal” if an escape was attempted by any one of us (in this case it was all arranged by the SS troopers).
They pulled all eleven corpses by ropes attached to just one leg. Dogs baited the blood soaked corpses. All of it was done with laughter and jeering.
We were closing to the gate, an opening in the line of fences made of wire.
There was a sign at the top: “Arbeit macht frei” (Through Work To Freedom).
Only later we could fully appreciate its real meaning.
Pilecki survived his first days in Auschwitz and later established the first cell of his secret organization.
(Pilecki’s diary (2) translated from Polish)
From the darkness, from above the camp’s kitchen, Seidler the butcher spoke to us: “ Do not even dream that any one of you will get out of here alive… your daily food ratio is intended to keep you alive for 6 weeks; whoever lives longer it’s because he steals and those who steal will be placed in SK, where nobody lives for too long.”
Wladyslaw Baworowski- the camp’s interpreter translated it to us into Polish.
It was meant to break our psychological resistance.
SK (Straf-Kompanie – Penal Company).
This unit was designated for all Jews, priests and Poles whose “offences” were proven. Ernst Krankemann, the Block Commander, had a duty of finishing off as many prisoners of the unit as he possibly could to make room for new, daily “arrivals”.
This duty suited Krankemann’s character very well.
If someone accidentally moved just a little bit too much from the row of prisoners, Krankemann stabbed him with his knife, which he always carried in his right sleeve.
If someone, afraid of making this mistake, positioned himself slightly too far behind, he would be stabbed by the butcher in the kidney.
The sight of a falling human being, kicking his legs or moaning aggravated Krankemann.
He would jump straight away on the victim’s rib cage, kicked his kidneys and genitals, and finished him off as quickly as possible.
Pilecki’s secret organization, which he called the ‘Union of Military Organization’, was composed of cells of five prisoners who were unknown to one another with one man designated to be their commander. These cells were to be found mainly in the camp hospital and camp work allocation office.
Once the first cells were established, contact with Warsaw became essential It so happened that at the time, by exceptionally fortuitous circumstances, a prisoner was released from the camp who was able to take Pilecki’s first report. Later reports were smuggled out by civilian workers employed in the camp. Another means was through prisoners who had decided to escape.
From the very start Pilecki’s principal aim was to take over Auschwitz concentration camp and free all the prisoners. He envisaged achieving this by having Home Army detachments attacking from the outside while cadre members of his Union of Military Organization, numbering around a thousand prisoners, would start a revolt from within. All his reports primarily concerned this matter. However, the Home Army High Command was less optimistic and did not believe such an operation to be viable while the Eastern Front was still far away.
In his diary Pilecki didn’t give the SS troopers much credit, and was certain that his organization could have taken control of the camp.
He waited for orders from the headquarters but at the same time the Germans started arresting members of Pilecki’s secret organization and he knew his time was up.
He also believed that if he could present “his case” in person some action would be taken.
Pilecki therefore felt it necessary to present his plans personally. This meant that he would have to escape from the camp, which he succeeded in doing with two other prisoners on 27th April 1943. Before the breakout Pilecki passed on his position within the camp organization to fellow inmate Henryk Bartoszewicz. However, neither his subsequent report nor the fact that he presented it in person altered the high command’s opinion
Fearing the reprisals on the entire population was one of the reasons why such action was not allowed by the high command in London.
Another one was that there was no way to hide or to move such enormous number of people anywhere and with the Eastern Front still far away the whole project was considered unrealistic.
Witold Pilecki escaped from Auschwitz on the Easter Monday 1943, he also survived the Warsaw Uprising an the German POW camp in Germany.
He returned to Poland after the war and started organizing resistance against the communists.
When he learnt that the Allies would not help to liberate Poland he started demobilizing the military underground organization.
It was then, that the communists arrested him.
He was interrogated and tortured for many months. His finger nails were pulled out and his collarbones broken and he could hardly walk.
He never “talked.”
After his process, which was a simple farce, he was sentenced to death by a firing squad.
There was no firing squad though.
The executioners dragged him the basement of the Security Headquarters building, into the boiler room.
He was gagged and could not walk.
They shot him with a single slug into the back of his head 0n May 25, 1948.
He was buried somewhere on the rubbish tip next to the Powązki Cemetery.
His body was never found.
Just one man among many millions dead.