For every bit of harm that World War II ever inflicted on the world, it gave us the clearest view into human resolve and strength ever in history. Every side of the conflict had heroes; every side had men and women who defied reality with their courage and will. I believe one individual stands among the pinnacle of the greatest heroes of that age: Witold Polecki. He was a Polish soldier who sported an incredible career, but every act of courage and heroism pales compared to the mission for which he was most known, which began in 1940. Infiltrate the Auschwitz-Dachau concentration camp.
Even before he was born, Witold had an incredible history. Witold Pilecki was born in Olonets, Karelia, in the Russian Empire to landed Polish gentry who’d been exiled there following the 1863 January Uprising, particularly of Jozef Pilecki H. Leliwa. Jozeph was a staunch Polish Nationalist and supporter of the succession of Poland from the Russian empire. Imperial forces would brutally quash the Uprising by 1864, and Jozeph, like most Polish aristocrats who’d supported the movement, would be stripped of his title and exiled to Siberia. Following his release, seven years later, Jozeph would take his family to Karelia, near the Finnish border, where his family would stay for several generations.
Born to a Civil Servant in May 1901, Witold would spend his youth and early-life in the Russian Empire, first in Olonets, then in Vilnius, Lithuania. His family would stay there in Lithuania from 1910 through 1915 when they were forced to flee before the German Army invasion. Witold and his family eventually settled in Mogilev in modern-day Belarussia, which was technically Poland at the time. Through this time, Witold would exercise his Polish patriotism and hold membership within the secret ZHP Polish Scouts, essentially a paramilitary version of our own Eagle Scouts.
In 1918, during the geopolitical nightmare that was postwar Eastern Europe, Witold Pilecki would begin his military service and the start of an incredible military career. As a member of a ZHP Scout unit under the White Movement, he would operate in Lithuania, disarming the defeated Germans and preparing the region for the inevitable Red Army assault. When Vilnius fell in January 1919, and the Polish-Soviet War began, Pilecki took part in partisan operations behind enemy lines for a short time before retreating to Bialystock. Here he was understood to have enlisted as a Private in Poland’s new volunteer Regular Army. Following this, Pilecki would take part in such critical operations as the Kiev Offensive, the Defense of Grodno city, the Battle of Warsaw and Rudniki Forest, and the Liberation of Vilnius.
With the conclusion of the Soviet-Polish War in March 1921, Witold suddenly found himself amid peacetime. He would stay in the Polish Army reserves as a Corporal NCO. He would attend secondary education and then college at the Stefan Batory University. Unfortunately, financial issues and his father’s declining health forced him to leave school sometime in 1924. The following year, Witold would attend officer training at the Cavalry Reserve Officers’ Training School in Grudziądz, to become a Cavalry Officer, as if embracing his Polish heritage of the Winged Hussars.
In 1926, concluding the long story of his family’s exile, Pilecki took up ownership of the Leliwa estate in Sukercze, located about 60 miles east of Minsk. He would raise a family, marrying a woman named Maria Pilecka née Ostrowska, who survived Witold until 2002. He would also become a leader within his community as a social worker, fire brigade commander, and an amateur painter. He would also found an agricultural cooperative as a passionate advocate and patron of rural development. In 1926, he would even establish a cavalry training school and become the local 1st Lida Cavalry Squadron commander. In 1937, Pilecki would transfer into the Polish 19th Infantry Division and take up command of a cavalry platoon after the greater Polish Army absorbed his unit and cavalry school.
Throughout the years preceding 1939, German and Poland relations had been progressively eroded down to nothing. This breakdown was spurned largely by Hitler’s aggressive negotiations to annex the city Danzig, a territory Germany had lost to the Treaty of Versailles. The Casus Belli, or the reason for war, Hitler used to justify his invasion were reports of “Germans in Poland are persecuted with a bloody terror and are driven from their homes.” His proclamation of war would continue with “The series of border violations, which are unbearable to a great power, prove that the Poles no longer are willing to respect the German frontier.”
Fighting with the 19th Infantry Division, Witold was there at the beginning of the fighting, facing the 1st Panzer Division on September 5th in the town Piotrkrow Trybunalski. Over the next three days, the 19th ID would take severe losses, and its constituent forces were scattered in several directions by the aggressive German armor. Some units attempted to disengage from the German lines and retreat towards Warsaw, while others, including Pilecki, moved toward L’viv, Ukraine. He linked up with the battered 41st Infantry Division, where he was understood to meet and befriend Major Jan Włodarkiewicz. During this period, Witold and Jan established a small cavalry squadron from the surviving marauders of the scattered Polish forces.
The two would fight together through September and October until the Battle of Kock, which saw Poland utterly consumed. The two would see the Battle of Wlodawa and the Soviet Union fulfilling the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by invading Eastern Poland. By October, conventional Polish forces had been finished by the incoming Germans and Soviets. As a result of the capitulation, Witold and Jan disbanded their unit and attempted to make for Hungary. However, allied Soviet-German forces blockading the frontiers into Hungary and Romania had made that impossible, so they elected to break through to Warsaw and disappear into the occupied city.
Here Witold and Jan, along with most of the men from their disbanded unit, established the Secret Polish Army, Tajna Armia Polska or TAP, the first resistance movement of its kind in Europe.
One of the defining historical characters of the Second World War was that of the Resistance Fighter. A partisan, wearing the mish-mash of civilian clothes and stolen military gear, the red arm-bands, and maybe even a beret. Thanks mostly to French historical revisionists in the ’50s and ’60s, popular culture has the French Resistance painted in this particular manner. In reality, the French resistance was much more disorganized and generally ineffective than what they depicted as following the war. This was mostly due to the French Resistance being made up of dozens of different organizations who all hated each other. There were the Gaullists, the Communists, the Socialists, the Vichy-loyalists, the Jews, and even foreign-sourced cells. And most of these organizations spent most of their time killing each other rather than the Germans. By themselves, the French never could organize themselves and execute unified operations with overarching battle plans. It wasn’t until Britain deployed the Jedburghs, operatives from the British Special Operations Executive, the American OSS, and Free French Central Bureau of Intelligence and Operations, to organize the French resistance into overt operations against the Germans.
The Polish resistance was something of a different animal altogether. While France has been fractured by capitulators, sympathizers, and resisters, the Poles, by comparison, had their act together.
In the early years of the war, much of Poland’s resistance fighter’s primary mission was information collection. Germany’s takeover of continental Europe had been savage and sewed up most conventional lines of communication. Polish operatives throughout every country under occupation were critical in allowing the British and the several governments-in-exile, GIE, residing there what exactly the Nazi’s were doing. In fact, it was Polish Intelligence who gathered critical information about German cipher technology, allowing the British to crack the German’s Enigma code. Additionally, Polish intelligence caught the wind of the German concentration camps as early as 1939.
What tipped Poland’s operatives to Germany’s activities in these camps was families related to the captured and imprisoned would receive telegrams informing them of their relative’s death. There were enough reports at the time to put together a pattern; the particular Pole’s who had reported as dead were typically members of the intelligentsia, scholars, teachers, and academics. Something was going on within these camps, but at this point, no one had gotten a look inside. They were black holes from which nothing escaped. At least until Witold came along.
As far as I can tell, the road that Witold took to volunteering for this mission is either very straightforward or incredibly complex. The simple version of this story is that the Underground heard of these reports, and Witold, of his own initiative, took up the challenge to get inside. The other version of this story begins with those same divisions of ideologies and religion that prevented any coherent organization within the French Resistance manifesting among the Polish Underground.
1940 was a complicated year. While the Secret Polish Army was conducting operations as a resistance force, gathering intelligence, sabotaging Nazi assets, assassinations the German cadre, a fissure began to grow within its command structure. When he helped build the TAP, Pilecki wanted the organization to be secular as not to alienate any potential allies. Meanwhile, Major Jan Włodarkiewicz, Witold’s commander since the 41st ID and the second founder of TAP, had grown more and more right-wing in his beliefs as time went on.
What began as Jan blaming Poland’s defeat on the fact that it hadn’t been a unified Catholic state by the time Germany invaded became much more volatile. Jan’s politics would continue to grow more and more into the right-wing. He would put ultranationalistic ideologies in the TAP’s secret newsletter, espouse anti-semitic ideas, and even talk with a far-right resistance movement was known to collude with the Germans.
Seeing his friend become unreliable and volatile, Witold began negotiating with the Union of Armed Struggle (ZWZ), a cell within the Armia Krajowa, to take administrative control over the TAP and relieve Jan of command. This created even more friction between the two because the ZWZ was an organization that advocated for equal rights for Jews and focused on routing intelligence on German atrocities to the Polish GIE Britain. In response to Witold’s movements, Jan refused and issued a manifesto proclaiming that “future Poland had to be Christian, based on national identity, and that those who opposed the idea should be removed from our lands.” Negotiations apparently still continued.
According to Jack Fairweather’s book The Volunteer, Jan, during a staff meeting a short time later, agreed to the ZWZ taking control of the TAP and that Pilecki had been nominated for the Auschwitz mission. According to Fairweather, the task was voluntary but was still a punishment for working to usurp his command and not backing his ideologies.
Either way, Witold took up the mission.
Hier ist Auschwitz, mein lieber Mann.
What follows are the direct accounts from Witold’s report on the camp. The plan to get inside Auschwitz was brutally simple: get arrested. With the false identity of Roman Jezierski in his pocket, Witold walked into a regular round-up of Poles by SS-men. In his report, Pilecki documents his capture. “On September 19th, 1940 — the second street round-up in Warsaw. Several people are still alive, who saw me walk alone at 6:00 a.m. and stand in the “fives” arranged of people rounded up in the street by SS-men.”
He noted that even during the beginning stages of the captivity, the people around him had cowed into submission. “I personally was upset by the passiveness of the mass of Poles. All those rounded up became imbibed with a kind of a psychosis of the crowd, which in that time expressed itself in that, that the whole crowd was similar to a herd of sheep.” This observation would be a regular trend in Witold’s report.
On September 21st, 1940, Witold and some “one thousand eight hundred and several tens” Poles completed the journey into the camp moved by truck and train. He reported that through all this time, they were not fed or given water and the interior of the train he was in had been used at some point to transport lime. Through the jostling and human presence, the material became airborne and irritated the prisoners’ eyes and longs within. But this discomfort was nothing in comparison to the reception that awaited them.
SS-men, dogs, savage beatings, and random killings met them as the cattle-train of bewildered and terrified Poles disembarked. As they were paraded into formation in front of the trains, all around SS-men tormented their prisoners. Witold noted an incident where ten random men were pulled aside and simply shot. Another SS-man took a prisoner aside and told him to run toward a particular lamp-post. He was sprayed down by machine-gun fire not ten paces away. The SS-men had just organized and quashed an attempted escape, all in less than a minute. “All that was accompanied by laughs and scoffs,” Witold wrote.
This was Witold’s first day of nearly a thousand in hell.
According to Witold, this particular period in time when Auschwitz exclusively operated a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners, and the extermination of the educated. He recounts several incidents during the camp’s in-processing where any prisoner who identified themselves as a priest, judge, lawyer, teacher, or student were commonly taken aside and summarily beaten to death. If those prisoners weren’t killed outright, they would be deliberately assigned to labor gangs to be worked to death. He noted that this confirmed the Underground’s suspicion of Auschwitz’s nature as a death camp.
As with every aspect of Auschwitz, in-processing was brutal. First, in packs of more than a hundred, the prisoners would be led into bathhouses where they were stripped of all their possessions and shaved. They would then be issued the distinctive striped prisoner’s uniforms, a pair of wooden shoes, and a number. Witold had his two front teeth knocked out during this process because he held his prisoner’s card in his hands rather than between his teeth as the bathroom chief, or Bademeister in German, instructed.
After the prisoners were marched out into the parade-ground in the camp center, they separated into the dormitory blocks. During the early years, everything inside the prison was managed by a CAPO. They were typically German, but all of them were some from of violent criminal. They were brutish, cruel, and bestial and handed out death at the end of wooden clubs. The manager of Witold’s particular dormitory block was a German communist by the name of Alois, who administered a twisted form of military discipline through beatings and cruelty. To help enforce his order in the dormitory, he selected a small number of prisoners who showed some amount military bearing. Witold, unsurprisingly, was selected.
Alois, instructed his new enforcers that they would be in charge of the prisoner’s sleeping bays, to include the tidiness and order of the facilities. This extended as far as the behavior of the men inside. As payment for this job, they would not have to work in the labor gangs.
Living conditions were primitive during the camp’s early life, and every facet of life within the camp was designed to kill its prisoners. The prisoners slept naked in long rows on straw mattresses with only a single blanket for coverings. In the mornings, at a sprinter’s pace, the inmates would stack their mattresses and fold their blankets in neat order before taking roll-calls in tight military order. Any man late would be beaten, usually to death. After that, these prisoners paraded out for the morning shower along with the thousands of others. There were no actual showers in the dormitories during this period; however, there was a line of primitive pumps for the prisoners to utilize. Witold said in his report that he was only ever able to get a small handful of water to clean himself, there was so many prisoners.
Despite that fact, the prisoners were still mandated to keep themselves clean, particularly their legs. The CAPO’s would enforce this like everything else. In the evening, after the workday, an inmate must have their legs clean. According to Witold, “Block supervisors on their tour inspections in evenings, when the ‘room supervisor’ reported the number of prisoners lying in straw mattresses, checked the cleanness of legs, which had to be put out from under blankets up, so that the “sole” would be visible. If a leg was not sufficiently clean, or if the block supervisor wished to deem it to be such — the delinquent was beaten on a stool. He received from 10 to 20 blows with a stick.”
Many tried and succeeded in suicide rather than continue living in this hell. The prisoners’ most effective method of suicide was to “walk to the wire.” As the term suggests, prisoners, commonly in the early hours of the morning, would headlong toward the line of electrified fences and machine-gun emplacements that guarded the camp’s perimeter.
Food was also terrible; served mostly in liquid form and in huge quantities, to deliberately cause liver and kidney failure, according to Pilecki. He illustrated in his report, that he avoided the cirrhosis and edema associated with liver failure by cutting away “liquids of no advantage.” That tactic evidently worked because Witold was able to keep up a relatively good physical shape throughout this time in Auschwitz. The same could not be said for thousands of others, and a crematorium had to be constructed to help with the camp’s mounting corpses.
It was during this period where he started to put together his little resistance within the camp. His first cell was small, no greater than five men, and all were Polish military. Their primary mission was to keep up the other prisoners’ spirits by delivering and disseminating news from the outside, scrounging and distributing additional food and underwear, and getting information to the outside. This last part was achieved by smuggling reports out with certain Polish prisoners whose families had bought them their freedom out of the camp. The ransoms that the Germans asked for were ludicrously steep, but nevertheless, there were still a few lucky ones who got out.
One final aspect of the cell’s mission within the camp was preparing the camp for seizure when friendly forces inevitably came. They achieved this by becoming CAPO’s themselves, working their way into the camp’s command structure. This gave the cell the critical benefit of easy movement within the camp as well as preferential treatment for members within Witold’s conspiracy. They even built a radio out of scrounged parts and used it to great effect by broadcasting intelligence from the inside to the Armia Krajowa, who would route it up to Britain and the exiled Polish Government. Witold would make four other organizations, coined as Fives, through his time there. Each of the groups would have no knowledge of the others for the protection of the larger conspiracy.
A taste of the Real World.
At some point in 1941, Witold got himself a job as a stove-repairman, although he didn’t know how a stove worked. Under guard by SS-men, he left the camp for the nearby town of Oświęcim, where the SS-officers lived. He noted how different the two worlds were. The Polish town was idyllic and unmolested by any sign of war. He saw men in pubs, children playing in the streets and fields, women shopping, people living their lives.
He was also shocked by how respectful and human the SS-officer behaved when they were in his flat as if he didn’t lord over hell itself. Witold was an exceptionally strong man with an unbreakable will, but nothing in the camp had at this point rocked him to his core the way the soft-spoken SS-officer talked to him. In his report, he talks at length about how he could not hold the two worlds together in his mind. He did not know how the two worlds could ever exist together. “I saw heaven and hell by turns,” he would write in his final report. “I felt as if I was pushed into a fire and into water alternately.”
Through his almost-three years, Witold saw Auschwitz turn from a hardly organized camp of violence and madness into the methodological cauldron of death that would make the camp infamous. This shift began in mid-to-late 1941 following Operation Barbarossa, the codename for the invasion of the Soviet Union. Witold observed this shift through the manner of prisoners who were brought through the camp. The SS-no longer carted in Poles. Instead, Soviet Russians, Jews, Romani, and homosexuals were the primary haulage coming into Auschwitz.
There were new rules in the camp. Now the random beatings and killings began to shift toward something with more methodology, Witold had noticed. There were no more mass-punishments for a single prisoner’s infractions, no more random killings because of someone’s dirty feet. But there were exceptions. It was between May and August 1941 where SS soldiers had taken over the camp management, with CAPO’s still serving as muscle when needed. And with this new regime, the punishments, now more rarely doled out, became more viscous. Witold recounts an incident where the SS trained their dogs to go for prisoner’s testicles and other horrible stories besides. Auschwitz was no longer a prison camp. As Witold put it in his report, “The camp was like a huge mill, processing living people into ash.”
Witold, sometime in August 1941, witnessed a group of about 700 Soviet soldiers, all high-ranking, taken from their barracks and locked inside the camp bathhouse. They would stay there for many hours before SS-men in gas-masks and rubber suits threw canisters containing hydrogen cyanide inside the room. Fellow prisoners, who’d removed the bodies the following day, painted a mecabre picture; the 700 soldiers had been packed so tightly that they’d died standing, unable to fall down. Witold Pilecki had just witnessed the first use of hydrogen cyanide by Germany against its prisoners.
For the camp, the war had just changed.
Dozens of times, as Witold went to and from his duties, he would see naked and starved soviets, Jews, and gypsies lined up outside of the crematorium staring down their final moments before gassing and cremation. Auschwitz’s crematorium had to be rebuilt because the chimneys’ constant use throughout the last two years had caused it to collapse. The Germans took this opportunity to build three crematoriums specially designed with the infamous gas-chambers and three-minute electric combustion ovens that would murder hundreds of thousand. These new systems would be used day and night, consuming some 8000 people a day, by Pilecki’s estimation.
By 1943, Auschwitz had become the monster that history knows today. Witold had survived beatings, typhus, dysentery, and lice. He’d suffered through medical experimentation by German doctors seeking to optimize their final solution. The surviving Poles within the secret network he’d built inside the camp were gone, carted away to different prison camps to make room for incoming Jews and other “enemies of the Reich.” It had been three years, and no hint of liberation had ever come. He needed to get out.
To facilitate this, he got a job in a bakery out in town. During a night shift sometime after Easter, Witold and two other prisoners overpowered their German guard, who’d been asleep at the time, and ran. They ran through the night and into the morning. Witold was lucky enough to encounter a priest who gave him solace. Shortly after that, he made contact with Armia Kryowa operatives and snuck his way into Warsaw.
It was here where he made his report about the camp to the Armia’s regional commanders. His commanders knew of the camp’s true nature by this point, but they were shocked by his estimation that 1.5 million people had been murdered in Auschwitz. It was the bleakest and most direct report on the inside of the camps they had ever heard.
For his efforts and his bravery, Witold was promoted to Captain and incredibly continued to serve. He would fight in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 and was captured again. By good fortune, Witold was transported to a conventional POW camp and did not see the hell of another deathcamp. He would be liberated in April 1945 by troops from the US 12th Armored Division.
Though the war against the Nazi’s had been won, Witold was not done fighting. After his liberation, he was assigned to the Polish II Corps’ military intelligence in Ancona, Italy. While stationed there, Witold wrote the comprehensive report on his time in Auschwitz, which I’ve made reference throughout this essay. However, it wasn’t long before Witold was deployed on another mission; infiltrate the newly communist Poland.
The Soviets, when they came in a liberating flood from the east, had taken the underhanded opportunity to expand the Party’s influence. In the countries they’d liberated from the Germans, the Soviets installed communist administrations loyal to Moscow. Poland, along with East Germany, Czechia, Hungary and others, was one such country subjected to a Soviet government during post-war years.
This initiated a tense diplomatic fight between the exiled Polish leadership and the Soviet Union, one which they would inevitably lose, however not for any lack of trying. While diplomats battled with dispatches and meetings in quiet consulates, Polish operatives fought this battle with infiltration. As an intelligence officer under II Corps, Pilecki was one of these infiltrators. His mission was not so dissimilar from his one in Auschwitz; break through the newly erected Iron Curtain and report on the military and political situation under Soviet-occupation.
In a further showing of his exceptional character, Pilecki would exceed these orders by about a mile. He arrived in late December 1945 and quickly began building an information network with the help of several associates from his time in Auschwitz. Witold would spend two years operating out of Warsaw under several cover identities, routing intelligence back to the Polish government. His activities however would not go unnoticed by Soviet Intelligence, and he became wanted man, hunted by police and security services alike. However, in May 1947, Witold was arrested by the Bureau of Public Security, Communist Poland’s version of the KGB.
Witold would spend the next year in prison, much of it under torture to force a confession, which he eventually provided. With the confession in hand, the Communists threw Witold through a show trial where he was charged with illegal border crossing, use of forged documents. While he was technically guilty of the these crimes the Communists didn’t miss the opportunity to level some exceptionally asinine accusations for the purpose of making an example. These charges included not enlisting with the military, carrying illegal arms, espionage for “foreign imperialism”, and planning to assassinate several officials of the Ministry of Public Security of Poland.
He was found guilty and executed with a shot to the back of the head on May 25th, 1948. His burial place has never been found, but it is believed to be located somewhere in Powazki Cemetery in Warsaw.
Witold’s story was suppressed within Poland by the Communists, and it wasn’t until after the fall of the Soviets that began to change. In 1990, Poland’s new government would exonerate Witold of all his charges and posthumously awarded him the Order of the White Eagle, the highest Polish military decoration, as well as a promotion to colonel. The cemetery in which he was believed to lie was converted into a memorial in Witold’s name.
Witold Pilecki, to this day, stands as a monument of Polish courage and will, but also tragedy. He was a soldier who survived hell on Earth for almost three years and continued to fight for a country that no longer existed. He was a soldier to his last breath, and by all accounts, was genuinely a good man. However, that good man was murdered by another evil regime that had taken over his country. His posthumous honors following the fall of the Soviets do not do this man justice.
This had been a story about a hero.