Witold Pilecki: The Auschwitz Volunteer

Oliver – Year 12 Student & Chief Editor, Humanities Journal

Editor’s note: Oliver shares here the remarkably brave life of Polish resistance fighter Witold Pilecki, the so-called ‘Auschwitz volunteer‘. As Oliver notes, “[a]lthough exalted today by his compatriots, Pilecki deserves to be better known… He is remembered today as a national hero in Poland and, having been awarded posthumously The Order of The White Eagle in 2006, his story was officially restored to the Polish people in 2008.” CPD

Auschwitz is a place synonymous with death and despair, a grim monument to the vanity, ignorance and pure evil of which humankind is capable. After a desperate 20th century, we must hope that Europe has finally determined never again to suffer the appalling costs of war. Certainly, we now live in a continent, which, despite the apparent strains of politics and democracy, is more peaceful than ever before; one which has never since compromised on the need to recognise the genocidal depths humans can sink to, and to pass on that knowledge to future generations. A hugely important part of that story is the courage and vision shown by individuals, such as Witold Pilecki, who rose to the challenge of their age, something that serves as an inspiration to people around the globe struggling in the face of totalitarianism today.

Pilecki was a patriotic Pole, a devout Catholic and a loyal husband. Born in 1901, he grew up in the city of Wilno, then part of the Russian Empire (Poland had been partitioned since the 18th century). After the Treaty of Versailles (1919) created a ‘new’ Polish state from the ruins of post WW1 Eastern Europe, Pilecki fought to protect the infant Republic during the Polish-Bolshevik war. Perhaps it was this first encounter with totalitarianism in the form of a fledgling USSR that inspired Pilecki to later resist Nazi occupation in 1940. Pilecki was certainly invested in his nation’s defence, creating a volunteer cavalry unit that was incorporated into the military, and it is speculated that he was involved in intelligence during the early thirties [1]; given the various skills and techniques he later so successfully deployed in Auschwitz, this would hardly be surprising. His definitive 1945 Report raises an urgent question – what motivated a dedicated family man with two children to risk those he loved in the line of duty? It is never made clear, but I suspect that his unquestionable patriotism, combined with a strong faith in God, overrode even his paternal instincts as he embarked upon his mission.

What motivated a dedicated family man with two children to risk those he loved in the line of duty?

Witold Pilecki can surely have had little comprehension of what lay ahead when he walked into a Warsaw German roundup one September morning in 1940. This was no chance encounter: Pilecki was a member of The Union of Military Organisations (ZOW when abbreviated in Polish), and his mission was to infiltrate Auschwitz, boost morale there, report to headquarters on the conditions within and prepare for an armed uprising. He would succeed magnificently on all counts before escaping the camp in 1943. But, as Pilecki entered a freight car at Warsaw station, his work not even begun, he could not have known that this would be his last glimpse of civilisation for nearly three years, nor the full extent of the Hell on Earth that he would encounter.

It began later that evening. As the car doors were thrown open, Pilecki found himself in another world. He and his fellow captives were driven like cattle off the station and into the main camp. Poles were shot out of hand, dogs were set on inmates and the combination of floodlights, animals and SS guards dazed the weaker prisoners, who according to Pilecki, ‘simply fell into a stupor’ [2]. Standing to attention on the freezing parade ground, Pilecki still thought in ‘earthly categories’ [3], but the reality was far worse. Conditions were appalling from the outset: facing extreme thirst, Poles received constant beatings and many ‘intellectuals’ (judges, lawyers, priests…) were murdered during that very first roll call. Despite the carnage surrounding Witold during his first evening, he seems calm and collected in his Report; his resolute nature is best illustrated by his reaction to his camp number, 4859, which apparently ‘cheered’ [4] him up (the outer and inner digits both make thirteen).

Survival required not just strength, but cunning, for no inmate could labour continuously. The key was to find the right moment to catch their breath whilst dodging the orderlies’ clubs.

Further study of Pilecki’s 1945 Report reveals that 1940 was easily the most brutal year.  Most assignments at this point were appalling, consisting of back-breaking work in miserable conditions. Survival required not just strength, but cunning, for no inmate could labour continuously. The key was to find the right moment to catch their breath whilst dodging the orderlies’ clubs. The most opportune moments were during the murder of fellow prisoners. As Witold recalls, those unsuited to manual labour – ‘some lawyer with a tummy, or a landowner… a teacher in glasses, or an older person’ – were swiftly found out and ‘beaten to death with clubs and boots’ [5]. Equal hostility was shown to the ‘intelligentsia’, with the Nazi regime determined to eliminate any challenge to its legitimacy.

Amidst the chaos of Pilecki’s first four months, his organisation began in earnest. His plan consisted of setting up ‘fives’, a group of (five) comrades who, having been recruited, were of the impression that they were the only such organisation in existence! This way, if one ‘five’ were to be ‘cracked’ by the Germans, other ‘fives’ would be unaffected. Although for the time being there was only one ‘five’, a further four would eventually be set up before Pilecki’s escape in 1943. Particularly useful were the efforts of members working in the hospital, who had the power to discreetly protect sick inmates. A crucial strategic move for Pilecki at this stage was finding a suitable work assignment, since he knew that arduous manual work would probably kill him, so he used his cunning and charm to transfer to the carpenter’s shop. Most were not so fortunate, but then again, most were not Witold Pilecki. Alongside his subversive efforts within the camp he showed formidable resourcefulness and drive in taking measures to protect his wife and children. The adoption of an alias (taken from a Polish officer working in Warsaw – incredibly, Pilecki would meet him after his escape) and efforts to contact his family without exposing his relationship with them all but guaranteed their safety [6].

[Pilecki’s] insistence on remaining in Auschwitz until [1943] illustrates the many personal qualities the Pole possessed: loyalty, courage, patriotism and a trust in God.

Towards 1941, the first successful escape attempt occurred, which resulted in the authorities going ‘berserk’ [7]. The inmates were judged by the Nazis to have a ‘collective responsibility’ for the embarrassment, and thus the first of many ‘punishment parades’ [8] took place. Pilecki and his organization quickly realised that escape was ultimately a selfish act if it meant the death of one’s comrades, and Pilecki would eventually escape in 1943 only after the principle of collective responsibility had been abolished, and his own position compromised. His insistence on remaining in Auschwitz until then illustrates the many personal qualities the Pole possessed: loyalty, courage, patriotism and a trust in God.

Throughout 1941, Pilecki would be tested to his limits. Aside from the risks of living in a concentration camp policed by cruel SS men (at this time, Auschwitz didn’t possess its infamous death camp, though one would be forgiven for thinking so, given the amount of murder taking place), Pilecki had to survive an inmate’s greatest trial – the desperate battle to defy hunger. The spring of 1941 would see him face hordes of lice and a typhus epidemic. Fighting off swarms of the repulsive insects whilst suffering from the disease, Pilecki came to the brink of death. However, thanks to his ‘colleagues’ in hospital, he survived. That year saw his organisation grow rapidly; three additional ‘fives’ were created, a political cell of ex-politicians was organised and, crucially, Operation Barbarossa began. Obviously, Pilecki had no role in the invasion of the Soviet Union; however, its arrival boosted camp morale tremendously. Tragically, it would also herald the camp’s transformation into the death camp so infamous today. The first Bolshevik prisoners that arrived were rapidly ‘terminated’ in an improvised gas chamber. When Pilecki first heard of it, ‘this still seemed improbable’ [9].

One wonders what Pilecki thought of Operation Barbarossa. Certainly, it would have raised his morale, considering it made Allied victory appear possible; was there also a tiny part of him that felt satisfied that war had come to Russian soil too? Poles had no love for the USSR. They too invaded Poland in 1939; it could be said that, in waiting until the Polish army was fully deployed against the Wehrmacht, they stabbed Warsaw in the back. It is hard for many in the West to reconcile the fact that their ally, led by Stalin, was every bit as malevolent as Hitler’s Nazi Germany, with its Gulags, totalitarianism and vicious anti-Christian sentiment.

1942 saw a notable change in the camp’s role, the introduction of gas chambers christening Auschwitz as the Third Reich’s principle death camp. Meanwhile, Pilecki’s organisation flourished. A solitary aerial attack by Soviet bombers on the camp not only further raised camp morale, but also prompted Pilecki to redraft plans in the event of military action. The camp was split into ‘four battalions’ [10], each consisting of a number of blocks; new inmates arriving that autumn were amazed by the high morale and decent physical condition of the Poles. The resistance movement was becoming more sophisticated each month, with a number of ingenious schemes, including the release of typhus-infected lice among the SS garrison, and these stand as a testament to Pilecki’s outstanding skills. Indeed, from 1942, the movement was ‘able to take over the camp on more or less a daily basis’ [11].  Pilecki awaited orders from the (Polish) Home Army High Command, orders that never came.

Why? It cannot have been due to an inability to communicate. Numerous minor reports were sent to the Allies during Pilecki’s time in Auschwitz, and the implication must be that those in London never realised how much of an asset those at the camp could be. Whatever the reason, the moment arrived when, following rumours from Warsaw, Pilecki began to suspect his position was compromised. Along with two comrades, he escaped from Auschwitz in the spring of 1943, and after a lengthy and emotional flight to freedom, Witold Pilecki reached safety.

How easy it would have been for Pilecki to reject further assignments and to remain with his family. Perhaps a lesser man would have walked away there and then, but Pilecki continued to play an active role in the Polish resistance. He fought in the Warsaw uprising of 1944, and continued to press for an assault on Auschwitz, as he watched his country ‘liberated’ by yet another repressive regime. Clearly, Pilecki’s time in Auschwitz had not diminished his motivation, for he continued to fight for his country post-WW2, this time against a different foe. Pilecki was opposed to all forms of totalitarianism, no matter the ideological slant.

I will stay. I cannot leave, somebody must remain regardless of consequences.

Pilecki

His mission became to conduct anti-Soviet resistance and report to the Polish government in exile, a mission which would cost him his life. But even when his position in Poland was compromised in 1948, Pilecki refused to leave his country. ‘I will stay. I cannot leave, somebody must remain regardless of consequences’. [12] The USSR arrested him that year, and after a period of horrific torture (meeting a family member during a prison visit, Pilecki stated that Auschwitz had been ‘child’s play’ compared to a Soviet prison [13]), executed him as a Western Spy. Tragically, his death would come at the hands of his indoctrinated countrymen [14].

Although exalted today by his compatriots, Pilecki deserves to be better known; for years, his exploits concealed by the USSR. He is remembered today as a national hero in Poland and, having been awarded posthumously The Order of The White Eagle in 2006, his story was officially restored to the Polish people in 2008 [15].  In the West, his story is finally becoming better known. His fate is hauntingly representative of that of Poland itself: a country betrayed by its allies and tormented by its neighbours, but one that survived against the odds to flourish as an independent state today.

Bibliography

[1] Pilecki, W (translated by Garliński, J) (2012) The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, Los Angeles California, Aquila Polonica (U.S.) LTD., p. xlvii

[2] Pilecki, W (translated by Garliński, J) (2012) The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, Los Angeles California, Aquila Polonica (U.S.) LTD., p. 14

[3] Pilecki, W (translated by Garliński, J) (2012) The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, Los Angeles California, Aquila Polonica (U.S.) LTD., p. 17

[4] Pilecki, W (translated by Garliński, J) (2012) The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, Los Angeles California, Aquila Polonica (U.S.) LTD., p. 20

[5] Pilecki, W (translated by Garliński, J) (2012) The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, Los Angeles California, Aquila Polonica (U.S.) LTD., pp. 34-35

[6] Pilecki, W (translated by Garliński, J) (2012) The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, Los Angeles California, Aquila Polonica (U.S.) LTD., pp. 319-320

[7] Pilecki, W (translated by Garliński, J) (2012) The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, Los Angeles California, Aquila Polonica (U.S.) LTD., pp. 65-66

[8] Pilecki, W (translated by Garliński, J) (2012) The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, Los Angeles California, Aquila Polonica (U.S.) LTD., p.66

[9] Pilecki, W (translated by Garliński, J) (2012) The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, Los Angeles California, Aquila Polonica (U.S.) LTD., pp. 131-132

[10] Pilecki, W (translated by Garliński, J) (2012) The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, Los Angeles California, Aquila Polonica (U.S.) LTD., pp. 223-227

 [11] Pilecki, W (translated by Garliński, J) (2012) The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, Los Angeles California, Aquila Polonica (U.S.) LTD., p. 230

[12] Polish History Museum (date last updated not available), Witold Pilecki, Google Arts and Culture, viewed 14 January 2021, <https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/witold-pilecki-polish-history-museum/QQJStDFF?hl=en>

 [13] Pilecki, W (translated by Garliński, J) (2012) The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, Los Angeles California, Aquila Polonica (U.S.) LTD., p. liv

[14] Pilecki, W (translated by Garliński, J) (2012) The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, Los Angeles California, Aquila Polonica (U.S.) LTD., p. liv

 [15] Polish History Museum (date last updated not available), Witold Pilecki, Google Arts and Culture, viewed 14 January 2021, <https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/witold-pilecki-polish-history-museum/QQJStDFF?hl=en&gt;

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