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
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
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
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
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
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