Witold Pilecki: ‘Beyond bravery’ during World War II – Getting INTO Auschwitz

Damian Lucjan
 
 
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Inmate 4859. The Death Camp Volunteer – Beyond Bravery

 Thus, I am expected to describe bare facts only, as my colleagues want it.
It was said: “The more strictly you will adhere to nothing but facts, relating them without comments, the more valuable it will be.”
So, I will try… but we were not made of wood… not to say of stone.

First sentences of Witold’s Report

Pilecki in a colorized pre-1939 photo (Image)
Pilecki in a colorized pre-1939 photo (Public Domain / Wikipedia)

Prelude

Prisoner 4859 was a volunteer for Auschwitz. We will tell you his story, as others have tried to erase him from history. His heroism was largely unknown for 50 years, but he is truly a hero.

Witold Pilecki – codenames; Roman Jezierski, Tomasz Serafiński, Druh, Witold- – was a founder of the Secret Polish Army. He was born in Olonets, Karelia, northwest Russia, as a descendant of Polish patriots. He was raised in a patriotic manner as well. In 1914 he entered Scouting, which was then a forbidden organization, outlawed by the Russian State. In 1918 he sneaked into Poland, a country that just got back its independence after 123 years of occupation.

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Young Witold Pileckiholding a cavalry saber (Image)

The Young 2nd Republic of Poland didn’t have much time to rest. In 1919 a Polish-Soviet War started and as an 18-year-old man, Pilecki had to defend his country. As a cavalryman, he participated in the Battle of Grodno, the Battle of Warsaw, and the Żeligowski’s Mutiny. For his actions during this war, he was awarded the Polish Cross of Valour, twice.

In 1921, when the war was over, he married and became the father of two children. He rebuilt his family estate and started painting as an amateur. Perhaps he thought his days of military service were over.

On September 1st, 1939, the Third Reich started World War II by invading Poland. The Polish Army was defeated in weeks, and the last battles fought by Pilecki’s unit were as a partisan unit. Pilecki, with two others soldiers, then founded the Secret Polish Army, one of the first underground organizations in Poland.

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Pilecki during military parade (Image)

Sneaking into Auschwitz

In 1940 Gestapo arrested a number of members of his resistance group and sent them to Auschwitz. Thanks to this Intel, this camp became a matter of interest to the whole organization. At this time, not much was known about German Concentration Camps.

He figured that if he was arrested, he would probably be incarcerated in Auschwitz. Pilecki presented the plan to his superiors to enter Auschwitz Concentration Camp, gather intelligence from the inside and organize inmate resistance. The others supported his plan, and it was decided.

On 19 September 1940, Pilecki deliberately let himself be caught during a German razzia in Warsaw, along with 2,000 other civilians. After two days of detention where prisoners were beaten and tortured, he was sent directly to Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Oświęcim.

Inmate 4859 (Image)
Inmate 4859. Auschwitz, 1941 (By http://wilk.wpk.p.lodz.pl/~whatfor/biog_pilecki.htm / Fair use / Wikipedia)

As inmate 4859, despite bouts of stomach ailments, typhus and pneumonia, lice infestations, backbreaking toil hauling rocks, extremes of heat and cold, and relentless hunger and cruelties at the hands of German guards, he formed an underground resistance group, the Union of Military Organization.

The goals Union of the Military Organisation (ZOW) were:

  • Keeping up the spirit and morale of inmates.
  • Passing news from outside world to other inmates.
  • Gathering food and clothes in secrecy and sharing it.
  • Passing intelligence outside the KZ Auschwitz.
  • Preparing divisions to take over the camp during a possible attack from the outside.

ZOW was designed as a system of groups of  ‘five.’ The first ‘five’ was the highest command of the organization. Members of ZOW had to earn an utter trust of Pilecki to be able to become part of the organization. Of course, the name ‘five’ wasn’t precisely, sometimes a single group had more members.

According to Pilecki’s, every ‘five’ had no idea about other groups and was convinced that they were the top of the entire organization. They developed on their own and built new branches of groups under their supervision, as far as they could.

ZOW provided the Polish underground with invaluable information about the camp. From October 1940, ZOW sent reports to Warsaw, and beginning in March 1941, Pilecki’s reports were forwarded via the Polish resistance to British Government in London.

From 1942, his reports were broadcasting using a radio transmitter that was built inside the camp (it took seven months to create such device with smuggled parts), including details on the number of arrivals and deaths, and condition of inmates.

‘Witold’s Report’ was the first comprehensive account of the Holocaust from a firsthand witness and was a principal source of intelligence on Auschwitz for the Western Allies.

Many didn’t believe that this was the reality in occupied countries. And it’s hard to imagine how hard was even to stay alive in the camps, with 7,000 Nazi SS guards, not to mention building a resistance network, organize escapes and send such valuable information outside.

Meanwhile, Gestapo sniffed out the traces of the ZOW, killing many of them. Pilecki decided to break out of the camp with the hope of convincing the Home Army leaders personally that a rescue attempt was a valid option. On the night of 26/27 April 1943, Pilecki and two others inmates escaped.

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