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The hero who voluntarily infiltrated Auschwitz

Historical experience demonstrates that the vast majority of people would not voluntarily enter hell. In the mid-20th century, aside from the Gulag, that would be German Nazi concentration camps. One individual actually volunteered for such a suicidal operation, the heroic Witold Pilecki. He was a uniquely courageous and daring individual. This patriotic Pole and underground soldier infiltrated KL Auschwitz in one of the most daring intelligence gathering operations of the Second World War. After his escape from the camp nearly three years later, he fought the German Nazis during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Pilecki subsequently snuck into Poland to combat the Communists after the war, and was executed by the country’s Soviet-controlled puppet regime.

Not surprisingly, the Communists attempted to snuff out his memory. Yet, Pilecki was never completely forgotten and, following the implosion of communism-proper, grass-roots efforts sprung up to commemorate him.   

In recent years, a push to popularize Pilecki’s story arose in Poland, as exemplified by the following song video:

To read Dr. Chodakiewicz’s review, please continue reading below:

The Intelligencer, vol. 19, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2012): 103-104.

The Bravest of the Brave

The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond BraveryWitold Pilecki, The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, ed. and transl. by Jarek Garlinski (Los Angeles and London: Aquila Polonica, 2012) is the most extraordinary intelligence report you will ever read. Its author was a highly decorated cavalry officer, a freedom fighter, a spy for the Free Poles in the West, and an Auschwitz inmate. Renowned British military historian Michael Foot dubbed him one of the six most intrepid covert operatives of the Second World War. Yet, he was really a peerless Number One. Let’s start from the end.

On May 25, 1948, in Warsaw, a Communist executioner put a bullet in the head of Captain Witold Pilecki. A year and a half after his infiltration into Poland the officer was captured and tortured by the Reds. “Auschwitz was a kid’s play,” he whispered to his wife about the treatment he had received from his interrogators. After a sham trial, he was sentenced to death. 

It is said that prime minister Józef Cyrankiewicz himself intervened to ascertain that there would be no clemency. Why? Cyrankiewicz was a fellow inmate of Pilecki at Auschwitz. The difference was that the former was a prisoner trustee and a Nazi collaborator; the latter was an underground operative in one of the world’s most dangerous concentration camps. In fact, three months after the Germans had established the installation at Auschwitz, the captain volunteered to reconnoiter this mysterious facility for Polish Christian political prisoners. But there was no way to get in. Well, there was one. Thus, in September 1940 Pilecki purposefully and consciously walked into a Gestapo dragnet to be taken there.

At Auschwitz, where the average life expectancy was three months, after being beaten by the SS within an inch of his life, and despite daily brutalization and starvation, Pilecki set up a military clandestine structure. Its ultimate objective was to liberate the camp in a coordinated attack with the Polish guerrillas from the outside. Dozens of prisoners were sworn in; they formed a secret self-aid society, and an intelligence gathering operation.

They collected information about essential and non-essential camp personnel, from the mighty SS-Kommendant himself down to the lowly Gestapo snitch. This would prove crucial in Allied propaganda warfare when the perpetrators could be called by their real names and their deeds were exposed on radio waves. The Nazis and their collaborators thus realized they could not hope for impunity. The intelligence proved also very useful for post-war persecution. Arguably, however, the most valuable intelligence concerned the Nazi extermination of the prisoners, in particular the Holocaust. From the vintage point of the Shoah’s main death factory, Pilecki faithfully recorded the bestial details of the mass murder of the European Jews. Eventually, these tidbits were, first, transmitted to the West and, later, synthesized in the post-war “Report.”

Transport after transport, the victims and the perpetrators, the captain was the first to account for the enormity of the crime. His rationale was that since the Nazis operated in secret, exposing them would stop the carnage. It was logical but failed to influence either the Germans or the Allies. Pilecki’s gory dispatches complemented by many others amassed by the Polish underground were communicated to the Allies both by radio and courier as early as 1941. The West failed to act on the intelligence. First, it was disbelieved; second, President F.D. Roosevelt judged the possibility of stopping the extermination of the European Jewry to be of secondary importance to winning the war.  Ultimately, Auschwitz became the grave of over 1.1 million Jews, up to 150,000 Polish Christians, 23,000 Roma, and perhaps 20,000 others, including, most notably, Soviet POWs.

Witold PileckiPilecki, naturally, thought that his dispatches made a difference. He even illegally rigged a radio to send reports to his superiors.  Another venue of transmitting the intelligence out of the camp was to facilitate escapes. The fugitives were tasked with conveying the dispatches to the underground command. A number of them succeeded. Most did not. In April 1943, the captain himself fled felicitously. When debriefed by his superiors, he argued for a rescue operation but it was not logistically possible. The Polish underground was still too weak; the Nazis were too strong. Even if the breakout had succeeded in coordination with an outside strike at the camp, there would have been no means of transportation to whisk the emaciated prisoners to safety and no place to hide tens of thousands of prisoners. Only the Allies had the means of halting the mass murder. However, Pilecki’s renewed appeals to the West, stressing the extermination of the Jews, and conveyed via the Polish government-in-exile, once again fell on deaf ears.  

Having recuperated for a spell, the officer rejoined the active struggle. This was just in time for the Warsaw Rising (August-October 1944), where he consistently acquitted himself with an utmost distinction, for example halting a Panzer column with a rag tag squad of volunteers armed chiefly with gasoline bottles. Initially, he fought as a private but after a while revealed himself as an officer and took command of an insurgent unit. When the Rising collapsed Pilecki became the prisoner of the Nazis, who incarcerated him at Murnau. Upon the Oflag’s liberation by the US 12th Armored Division in April 1945, the intrepid soul reported for duty in the Free Polish Second Corps in Italy.

While there, he stoically wrote a gut-wrenching “Report” about his activities in Auschwitz. If the document seems somewhat hurried, that is because Pilecki had another project on his plate. He completed the “Report” right after volunteering, once again, for yet another infiltration mission: to spy on the Soviet proxy regime in Poland, in particular the Communist terror apparatus. This would be the officer’s last mission, costing him his life.

Consistently heroic is the best appellation for Pilecki. Born in 1901 as a member of landed nobility in the bowels of the Russian Empire, he descended from a long line of Polish freedom fighters, his grandfather having been dispatched to Siberia for his part in the 1863 anti-Russian insurrection, for example. Inspired by the feats of the ancestors, Witold Pilecki took his family legacy seriously. At 15, he joined clandestine scouting movement against the Russians. At 17, he volunteered to fight the Bolsheviks first as a regular trooper and then a mounted guerrilla. After the Polish victory in the war against the Soviets in 1920, Pilecki, now a reserve officer, returned to civilian life, where he excelled as a gentleman farmer, artist, and community activist. Recalled to service in 1939, he fought against the invading Germans.  The captain went underground immediately following the crushing of the Polish armies on the battlefield by Hitler and Stalin in early October 1939.

What drove him? The unquenchable thirst for freedom was the main factor. But his service and, ultimately, sacrifice sprang from his innermost convictions as a Christian gentleman: His favorite read was Imitatio Christi by Tomas a Kempis. His story has long been known among the Polish émigrés in the West and the remnant of the traditional elite in Poland, as well as a few esoteric Western historians, usually anti-Communists. It took America’s victory in the Cold War to be able to bring Pilecki’s tale at long last to the broader public in the West.

A disclosure: I admire the man; I know his family (his granddaughter Dorota is my sister’s very close friend and is married to an American); I helped edit the work under review; and I advertise it to all and sundry. QED.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 18 August 2012