PEOPLE

Witold Pilecki (May 13, 1901 – May 25, 1948; codenames Roman Jezierski, Tomasz Serafiński, Druh, Witold) was a soldier of the Second Polish Republic, founder of the resistance movement Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska) and member of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa). During World War II he was the only person to volunteer to be imprisoned at Auschwitz Concentration Camp. While there, he organized inmate resistance and as early as 1940 informed the Western Allies of Nazi Germany's camp atrocities. He escaped from Auschwitz in 1943 and took part in the Warsaw Uprising (August-October 1944). Pilecki was executed in 1948 by communist authorities.

Pilecki's early life

Witold Pilecki was born May 13, 1901, in Olonets (in Polish, Ołoniec) on the shores of Lake Ladoga in Karelia, Russia, where his family had been forcibly resettled by Tsarist Russian authorities after the suppression of Poland's January Uprising of 1863-1864. His grandfather, Józef Pilecki, had spent seven years in exile in Siberia for his part in the Uprising. In 1910 Pilecki moved with his family to Wilno (now Vilnius, Lithuania), where he completed Commercial School and joined the secret ZHP scouts organization. In 1916 he moved to Orel, Russia, where he founded a local ZHP group.

During World War I, in 1918, Pilecki joined Polish self-defense units in the Wilno area, and under General Władysław Wejtka helped collect weapons and disarm retreating, demoralized German troops. Subsequently he took part in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920. Serving under Major Jerzy Dąbrowski, he commanded a ZHP scout section. When his sector of the front was overrun by the Bolsheviks, his unit for a time conducted partisan warfare behind enemy lines. Pilecki later joined the regular Polish Army and as part of a cavalry unit fought in the defense of Grodno (in present-day Belarus). On August 5, 1920, he joined the 211th Uhlan Regiment and fought in the historic Battle of Warsaw and at Rudniki Forest (Puszcza Rudnicka) and took part in the liberation of Wilno. For gallantry he was twice awarded the Krzyż Walecznych (Cross of Valor).

After the Polish-Soviet War ended in 1921 with the Peace of Riga, Pilecki passed his high-school graduation exams (matura) in Wilno and in 1926 was demobilized in the rank of cavalry ensign. In the interbellum he worked on his family's farm in the village of Sukurcze.

World War II breaks out

Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, on August 26, 1939, Pilecki was mobilized and joined the 19th Infantry Division of Army Prusy as a cavalry-platoon commander. His unit took part in heavy fighting in the September Campaign against the advancing Germans and was partially destroyed. Pilecki's platoon withdrew southeast toward Lwów (now L'viv, in Ukraine) and the Romanian bridgehead and was incorporated into the recently formed 41st Infantry Division. During the September Campaign, Pilecki and his men destroyed 7 German tanks and shot down two aircraft. On September 17, after the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland pursuant to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Pilecki's division was disbanded and he returned to Warsaw with his commander, Major Jan Włodarkiewicz.

On November 9, 1939, the two men founded the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska, TAP), one of the first underground organizations in Poland. Pilecki became its organizational commander and expanded TAP to cover not only Warsaw but Siedlce, Radom, Lublin and other major cities of central Poland. By 1940 TAP had approximately 8,000 men (more than half of them armed), some 20 machine guns and several anti-tank rifles. Later the organization was incorporated into the Home Army (Armia Krajowa) and became the core of the Wachlarz unit.

The Auschwitz crusade: 945 days

In 1940 Pilecki presented to his superiors a plan to penetrate Germany's Auschwitz Concentration Camp at Oświęcim (the Polish name of the locality), gather intelligence on the camp from the inside, and organize inmate resistance. Until then little had been known about the Germans' running of the camp, and it was thought to be an internment camp or large prison rather than a death camp. His superiors approved the plan and provided him a false identity card in the name of "Tomasz Serafiński." On September 19, 1940, he was caught by the Germans in a Warsaw street roundup (łapanka) along with some 2,000 innocent civilians (among them, Władysław Bartoszewski). After two days of torture in Wehrmacht barracks, the survivors were sent to Auschwitz. Pilecki was tattooed on his forearm with the number 4859.

At Auschwitz, while working in various kommandos and surviving pneumonia, Pilecki organized an underground Union of Military Organizations (Związek Organizacji Wojskowych, ZOW). ZOW's tasks were to improve inmates' morale, provide them news from outside, distribute extra food and clothing to members, set up intelligence networks, and train detachments to take over the camp in the event of a relief attack by the Home Army, arms airdrops, or an airborne landing by the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, based in Britain.

By 1941, ZOW had grown substantially. Members included the famous Polish sculptor Xawery Dunikowski and ski champion Bronisław Czech, and worked in the Camp's SS Administration Office (Mrs. Rachwalowa, Capt. Rodziewicz, Mr. Olszowka, Mr. Jakubski, Mr. Miciukiewicz), the storage magazines (Mr. Czardybun) and the Sonderkommando, who burned human corpses (Mr. Szloma Dragon and Mr. Henryk Mendelbaum). The organization had its own underground court and supply lines to the outside. Thanks to civilians living nearby, the organization regularly received medical supplies. Sentences of death pronounced by the court were usually carried out with German assistance: German collaborators' files were switched with those of persons sentenced to death by the Germans, or the collaborators were infected with typhus by lice used in German medical experiments.

ZOW provided the Polish underground priceless information on the camp and German activities there. Many smaller underground organizations at Auschwitz eventually merged with ZOW. In the autumn of 1941 Colonel Jan Karcz was transferred to the newly-created Birkenau death camp, where he proceeded to organize ZOW structures. By spring of 1942 the organization had over 1,000 members at most of the sub-camps, the membership including women, Czechs, Jews and many others. The inmates constructed a radio receiver and hid it in the camp hospital.

From October 1940 ZOW sent reports to Warsaw, and from March 1941 Pilecki's reports were being forwarded via the Polish resistance to the British government in London. These reports were a principal source of intelligence on Auschwitz for the Western Allies. Pilecki hoped that either the Allies would drop arms or troops into the camp, or the Home Army would organize an assault on it from outside. By 1943, however, he realized that no such plans existed. Meanwhile the Gestapo redoubled its efforts to ferret out ZOW members. Pilecki decided to break out of the camp, with the hope of personally convincing Home Army leaders that a rescue attempt was a valid option. When he was assigned to a night shift at a camp bakery outside the fence, he and two comrades overpowered a guard, cut the phone line and escaped on the night of April 26-April 27, 1943, taking along documents stolen from the Germans. In the event of capture, they were prepared to swallow cyanide to prevent the Germans learning the extent of their knowledge. After several days, with the help of local civilians, they made good their escape from the area and contacted Home Army units. Pilecki submitted another detailed report on conditions at Auschwitz.

Outside Auschwitz: the Warsaw Uprising.

On August 25, 1943, Pilecki reached Warsaw and joined the Home Army as a member of its intelligence department. The Home Army, after losing several operatives in reconnoitering the vicinity of the camp, including the Cichociemny commando Stefan Jasieński, decided that it lacked sufficient strength to capture the camp without Allied help. Pilecki's detailed report (Raport Witolda—"Witold's Report") was sent to London. The British authorities refused the Home Army air support for an operation to help the inmates escape. An air raid was considered too risky, and Home Army reports on Nazi atrocities at Auschwitz were deemed to be gross exaggerations (Pilecki wrote: "During the first 3 years, at Auschwitz there perished 2 million people; in the next 2 years—3 million").

Pilecki was soon promoted to cavalry captain (rotmistrz) and joined a secret anti-communist organization, NIE ("NO"), formed within the Home Army to prepare resistance against a coming Soviet occupation.

When the Warsaw Uprising broke out on August 1, 1944, Pilecki volunteered to the Kedyw's Chrobry II group. At first he fought in the northern city center without revealing his actual rank, as a simple private. Later he disclosed his true identity and accepted command of the 2nd company fighting in the Towarowa and Pańska Streets area. His forces held a fortified area called the "Great Bastion of Warsaw." It was one of the most outlying partisan redoubts and caused considerable difficulties for German supply lines. The bastion held for two weeks in the face of constant attacks by German infantry and armor. On the capitulation of the Uprising, Pilecki hid some weapons in a private apartment and went into captivity. He spent the rest of the war at German prisoner-of-war camps at Łambinowice and Murnau.

"Liberation": Soviet-dominated Poland

After liberation, on July 11, 1945, Pilecki joined the 2nd Polish Corps. There he received orders to clandestinely transport a large sum of money to Soviet-occupied Poland, but the operation was called off. In September 1945 Pilecki was ordered by General Władysław Anders to return to Poland and gather intelligence to be sent west.

He went back and proceeded to organize his intelligence network, while also writing a monograph on Auschwitz. In the spring of 1946, however, the Polish Government in Exile decided that the postwar political situation afforded no hope of Poland's liberation and ordered all partisans still in the forests either to return to their normal civilian lives or to escape to the west. Pilecki declined to leave, but proceeded to dismantle the partisan forces in eastern Poland.

In April 1947 he began collecting evidence on Soviet atrocities and on the prosecution of Poles (mostly members of the Home Army and the 2nd Polish Corps) and their executions or imprisonment in Soviet gulags.

On May 8, 1947, he was himself arrested by the Polish security service (Urząd Bezpieczeństwa). Prior to trial he was repeatedly tortured but revealed no sensitive information and sought to protect other prisoners. On March 3, 1948, a staged trial took place, in which many probably forged documents were admitted into evidence. Testimony against him was presented by a future Polish prime minister, Józef Cyrankiewicz, himself an Auschwitz survivor. Pilecki was accused of having spied for the Western Allies and General Anders. On May 15, with three of his comrades, he was sentenced to death. Ten days later, on May 25, 1948, he was executed at Warsaw's Mokotow Prison on ulica Rakowiecka (Rakowiecka Street).

Pilecki's conviction is generally thought to have been based on false charges and evidence, as part of a prosecution of Home Army members and others connected with the Polish Government in Exile in London. In 2003 the prosecutor and several others involved in the trial were charged with complicity in Pilecki's murder. Cyrankiewicz escaped similar proceedings by having died earlier.

It was only on October 1, 1990, that Witold Pilecki was rehabilitated. His place of burial has never been found; he is thought to have been buried in a rubbish dump near Warsaw's Powązki Cemetery. Until 1989 information on his exploits and fate was suppressed by the Polish communist regime.