8 – Witold Pilecki
Above we have told the story of the bravery of Charles Coward, the British soldier who smuggled himself into Auschwitz for one night and helped scores of Jews to escape from the death camp. If his bravery bordered on madness, then that of Witold Pilecki is truly insane: where Coward managed to spend one night in Auschwitz, Pilecki volunteered to be sent there indefinitely in an attempt to raise a resistance movement there and subsequently escape. Unbelievably, he managed to do both.
Pilecki was a commander of a cavalry platoon in the Polish Army when war broke out and, when the Polish government surrendered, he refused to stand down and continued fighting the Nazis as a partisan. He was one of the founders of the Tajna Armia Polska, the first iteration of the Polish resistance and in 1940, he produced an audacious plan to get himself sent to Auschwitz to gather information about the situation there and arrange a rudimentary resistance movement. The higher-ups of the Polish Resistance agreed and Pilecki was given permission to go out during a Nazi raid and get himself arrested.
It bears mentioning that at the time of Witold Pilecki’s scheme, there was hardly any concrete knowledge of the death camp system: Auschwitz was known to exist, of course, but not many people knew what was taking place there and Pilecki was intent on finding out. In the camp, he was sent out on work battalions and managed to set up the ZOW, a united resistance movement across the German prison system. Through this, Pilecki and his comrades were able to leak out information about what was taking place in Auschwitz, even setting up a covert radio station to broadcast the numbers of arrivals at the camp, as well as smuggling in extra rations. Pilecki managed to contract pneumonia during his time undercover, but retained his strength sufficiently to escape in 1943 after two and a half years spent at Auschwitz. He made his flight in the middle of an April night, overpowering the man sent to guard them, severing communications networks and then making their way out.
Once out, Pilecki linked up with the TAP – now called the Home Army – and recommenced resistance activity, coordinating ZOW organization from the outside and writing a report that broke open Auschwitz to the wider world: known as Witold’s Report, it was the first detailed description of the death camps that had been received by the Allies. Later, Pilecki was a leader during the Warsaw Uprising – though he initially enrolled as a regular soldier and was only promoted when he finally revealed himself – and found himself again captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp, where he sat out the rest of the war.
Having survived such an ordeal – in and out of Auschwitz, participating in the Warsaw Uprising and then being sent to a Stalag – one might have expected Witold Pilecki to become a national hero, but instead, he would find himself again on the wrong side of history. He aligned himself with the Polish government in exile in London, but on the ground in Poland, the Soviet-backed communist regime was taking power. He lived under assumed names again, but when his identity was discovered, Pilecki was arrested by the communist secret police and executed in 1948. When the verdict in his show trial was announced, he told the judge that “I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would rather feel joy, than fear.” It would not be until the fall of Communism in Poland in 1989 that Witold Pilecki would get the recognition that his sacrifices deserved.