Sunday, August 25, 2013

Volunteering For Auschwitz

"When God created the human being, God had in mind that we should all be like Captain Witold Pilecki, of blessed memory".
- Michael Sudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland  

Seventy years ago today, Witold Pilecki reached Warsaw, the headquarters of the Polish Home Army, the underground resistance organization struggling against the Nazi occupation, and reported on his two and a half years as a volunteer prisoner at Auschwitz, and his plan to liberate the camp.  Until reading articles last year in The Atlantic and Tablet Magazine, THC had been unaware of his story - one of the most astonishing and inspiring tales of moral and physical courage that you will ever hear.  Captain Pilecki's life story feels like it was lifted from an Alan Furst novel, except that it might be too unbelievable for a novel.  For an excellent non-fiction account about the region fought over by the Nazis and Communists and the awful plight of those caught in this merciless struggle read Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder.

Pilecki was born in 1901 in the remote Karelian region of northern Russia where his family was relocated after participating in the unsuccessful Polish uprising of 1863-4 against Czarist Russia (his father spent seven years in Siberia for his role).   After the 1917 Russian Revolution, young Witold made his way to what was then German occupied Poland.  With the collapse of Germany, and amid Russia's turmoil at the end of World War I, Poland regained the independence it'd lost in 1795.  For two years Poland and the new Soviet Union fought a war in which the advantage swung wildly; at one point Polish forces entering Kiev, and later the Soviets on the verge of taking Warsaw.  The Poles eventually prevailed, preserving their independence.  Witold fought throughout, twice receiving the Cross of Valour for bravery.

In the period between the world wars, Pilecki operated a small estate, started a community agricultural club, engaged in local social work, and indulged his passion for writing poetry and painting.  He also married and had a son and daughter.

In August 1939, Pilecki was mobilized as a platoon commander.  When the Germans attacked on September 1, 1939 Witold and his command were plunged into heavy combat.  He also fought against the Soviet forces who invaded on September 17.  By the end of the month Poland was overrun and the Nazis and Soviets divided the country, which ceased to exist, leaving Warsaw within the German zone.
(Pilecki in the Polish Army)
In November 1939 Pilecki, still in Warsaw, became one of the first members of the underground resistance which eventually transformed itself into the Polish Home Army.  His family, stranded in Soviet occupied Poland with the Communists taking away officers of the Polish army and their families, was able to flee and join Witold in Warsaw.

The first camp at Auschwitz was opened by the Germans in 1940.  With the Poles uncertain as to its purpose, Pilecki proposed infiltrating to collect intelligence.  His plan approved, he took the identity of another Pole presumed killed in September 1939 (it turned out he was not dead, leading to another hard to believe series of events too long to recount here) and prepared himself.  On September 19, 1940 the Germans conducted a roundup in the area of Warsaw where Pilecki resided.  Though he had the opportunity to escape he made sure he was captured.  His last words to the companion he left behind were, "Report that I have fulfilled the order."

In the Atlantic piece, a Polish historian remarks:
"I think he realized what he was getting himself into.  But even so, he was not prepared for the things he was actually able to witness."
The Auschwitz that Pilecki and the other 2,000 Poles in his transport entered in September 1940 was not yet the megaplex of Auschwitz-Birkenau.  The complex was to expand over time, the extermination camp with its gas chambers not becoming operational until the fall of 1942.   The initial inmates were a mixture of political prisoners, Gypsies, Jews, and members of the Polish intelligentsia which the Nazis planned to eliminate.  They were put to work constructing the next phase of the camp. Even before the extermination camp began operation Auschwitz was an extremely deadly environment.  Death could arrive via starvation, disease, random and planned executions, sadistic guards and their vicious dogs, or through the medical experiments run by the Nazi doctors.  One of many examples: about 10,000 Russian prisoners arrived at the camp in the fall of 1941; fewer than 1,000 were still alive the next spring.  Over the life of the camp complex somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million people were murdered.

Amidst this horror, Witold Pilecki began his work.  Initially he was appalled by the apathy of many of the Polish inmates, writing "A simple thought kept nagging me.  Stir up everyone and get this mass of people moving."  His objectives were to provide intelligence to the resistance and to establish an underground organization within the camp designed to keep up morale, distribute food and clothing, and prepare for an uprising.  Pilecki was eventually to organize several hundred prisoners into five person cells, setting up a communication network to smuggle reports out to Warsaw which were forwarded to the Polish government in exile in London (a route that usually took about 4 months). He also came close to dying twice, contracting typhoid and pneumonia under the horrible conditions.
(Pilecki in Auschwitz)

Pilecki carefully documented the horrendous crimes he witnessed and the growth of the camp, observing the influx of Jews in the latter part of 1942 once the gas chambers were completed.  His final report recently became available in English for the first time under the title The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery.  Though I've read brief portions, I've simply been unable to bring myself to read the book.  You can read excerpts at Witold Pilecki's Auschwitz Report.

In the report he wrote:
"Camp was a proving ground of character. Some - slithered into a moral swamp.  Others - chiseled themselves a character of the finest crystal."
As violence escalated, the net was closing on Pilecki and his group and several of the resistance cells were uncovered by the Nazis, causing them to shut down their radio transmitter for fear of detection.  Convinced of the need for the Polish Home Army to attack the camp and liberate its inmates, in the spring of 1943 he decided to escape in order to make the case for the assault in person.  On April 26, 1943, Pilecki and two companions managed to escape though Witold was shot and wounded in the process.

Below are comments by historian Timothy Snyder on significant aspects of Pilecki's Auschwitz report:

It took four months for Pilecki to cautiously make his way across Poland, finally reaching Warsaw and the Home Army.  To his bitter disappointment, the proposal for the attack was not endorsed by the Home Army leadership which did not have the arms, ammunition and transport to carry it out.  The Poles made an attempt to gain logistical support for the operation from the British, including bombers and planes to carry airborne troops.  They sent Pilecki's 11 page report to the British who dismissed it, believing the report to be a gross exaggeration, and declining to help.

Pilecki remained in Warsaw, commanding a company during the Home Army's Warsaw Uprising in August and September of 1944.  The Uprising is often confused with the Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto which occurred in April and May of 1943.  Shortly after occupying Warsaw, the Nazis forced the Jews of the city to live in a restricted area which quickly became terribly overcrowded, short of food and long on disease.  In late 1942, the Nazis began transporting Warsaw Jews to what they were told was resettlement in the East but was in reality was the extermination camp at Treblinka, where they were killed within hours of arrival (eventually 800,000 from all over Poland were to be murdered there).  When two transportees escaped from Treblinka, returning to Warsaw to tell of the true destination of the transports, they convinced some of the remaining Jews, armed sparingly with revolvers and homemade explosives, to undertake a desperate revolt which initially surprised the Germans, but was eventually brutally suppressed (fewer than one hundred of those in the ghetto survived the war).

The 1944 Uprising was much better prepared and armed.  In June 1944 the Soviets launched a massive assault on the Germans in what is now Belarus and shattered the Nazi front.  By the end of July, the Soviet army was within a dozen miles of Warsaw and the Home Army thought the time was ripe for an uprising against the Nazis, which began on August 1 with the expectation that the Russians would be in the city within a few days but, at the direction of Stalin, the Soviet armies halted in order to let the Germans wipe out the Home Army, which was anti-communist.  Hitler redirected German units to attack Warsaw with orders to kill every men, women and child.(Polish Home Army)

The German army initially carried out the order and an estimated 200,000 Poles died during the uprising. Without the expected Soviet relief the Home Army was in a hopeless situation.  The Americans and British proposed to resupply the Poles by air but Stalin refused permission for their planes to land on Soviet territory to refuel.  Block by block the fighting continued for two months with Pilecki's company in the center of the struggle until the area controlled by the Home Army was reduced to a few streets. In his epic account of the uprising, Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw, Norman Davies describes Pilecki's role in styming the initial German counterattack:
. . . a company led by Capt. Roman [the name Pilecki was known by] repeatedly invested a strategic building which overlooked the traffic on the boulevard Roman . . .  Almost every day during the first two weeks of the month, he captured, lost, and recaptured this building.  Repeatedly driven out, he repeatedly returned and with deadly cunning repeatedly expelled the German defenders . . . so long as he threatened this one vital pressure point, the German command was constantly made to feel insecure.  One is tempted to suggest that a single company could have won the Rising a fortnight's reprieve.
To finally end the uprising the Germans agreed to treat surrendered Home Army members as prisoners of war (elsewhere in Europe during the war the Nazis summarily executed resistance fighters).  The remnants of the Home Army, surrendered on October 5 and Pilecki sent to a POW camp in Germany, where he was liberated by the Americans on April 28, 1945.  But his war was not yet over.

Making his way to Italy, he joined the Polish Army Corps, which had fought its way up the peninsula as part of the Allied Army over the prior eighteen months.  Working in its Intelligence Section, he agreed to go back to Warsaw, where the Soviets and their Polish Communist puppets were tightening their grip.  Arriving in December 1945, he provided intelligence to the Polish Government in Exile in London, and organized resistance against the communists.  It was while he was back in Warsaw that he composed the longer account of Auschwitz, recently published as The Auschwitz Volunteer.  Pilecki was arrested by the Soviets on May 8, 1947.  Beaten and tortured, subjected to a show trial in March 1948, and secretly executed on May 25, his wife and two children were never notified of his fate, left hoping for years he was still alive.

(Pilecki on trial, 1948)

Two years later, a former prison guard who watched over Witold during his imprisonment approached the Pilecki family, telling them "I want to help you because your father was a saint  . . . Under his influence, I changed my life.  I do not harm anyone anymore."  But because of the familial association, Pilecki's wife and children had limited educational and job opportunities until the fall of the Communist regime

(As Soviet prisoner)

The location of Pilecki's grave remains unknown though in 2012 the Polish government excavated a site in Warsaw which it believes contain the remains of 400 Poles executed by the Soviets, possibly including Pilecki.  DNA testing is underway to identify the remains but no announcements have been made yet.

On October 1, 1990, a year after the overthrow of the communist government, a Polish court exonerated Pilecki of the charges he was convicted of in 1948.  In 2006, Witold Pilecki was awarded the Medal of the White Eagle, Poland's highest honor.
(2009 Polish Stamp Commemorating Pilecki)

He is also the subject of a Polish film, Smierc Rotmistzra Pileckiego (The Death of Captain Pilecki).

His 80-year old son, Andrzej, recently told of his father writing to he and his sister, advising them:
"We should live worthwhile lives, to respect others and nature.  He wrote to my sister to watch out for every little ladybug, to not step on it but place it instead on a leaf because everything has been created for a reason".

Of his father's rehabilitation, Andrzej says:
"There was a ban on speaking about my father.  There's been a rebirth now . . . I don't have a moment's peace at home because there are constantly phone calls and the like.  That makes me happy." 
On January 27, 2013 the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum held a commemoration in Captain Wilecki's honor.

In the forward to The Auschwitz Volunteer, Michael Sudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, writes:

"When God created the human being, God had in mind that we should all be like Captain Witold Pilecki, of blessed memory".


  1. This is a story I've read before and always felt that if Hollywood ever wanted to make a movie with a genuine hero Pilecki's story would be perfect. Unfortunately I doubt Hollywood cares and if they did make this story into a movie they'd probably find a way to make it awful (I was excited when they decided to make "Pearl Harbor" and they turned that into unwatchable trash.)

    1. I share both your interest in it being a movie and your concern. And yes Pearl Harbor (the film) was perfectly awful.