originally published June 6, 2013
Anyone with even a little Polish blood fluming through their veins may want to pour themselves a tall glass of national pride while they read today’s article. There are war heroes, there are kick-ass war heroes, and then there’s Witold Pilecki.
In August of 1943, Pilecki singlehandedly changed the very definition of the war the world was busy fighting. Those German prison camps, those German labor camps… no one knew what was really going on behind those electrified fences until Witold Pilecki dropped a truth-bomb more mighty than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
Seriously, why there isn’t a national holiday for this guy, I have no idea.
Pilecki grew up like a lot of kids: raised in Russia, grandfather exiled to Siberia, overrun by Bolsheviks and forced to fight for his nationality’s armed forces (Polish) against the nation in which he grew up. In between the wars, Pilecki was upped to second lieutenant of the Polish Army. He found time to work on the family farm, paint a little and get married.
Shortly before the Nazis swaggered into Poland, Pilecki was sent back to active military duty. His unit did what they could against the swarming Germans, but back in ’39 Hitler had a deal in place with the Soviets. With fighting coming from both sides, Poland had no choice but to hike up the flag of their conquerors and regroup. Pilecki was shipped off to Warsaw. That’s where he and his commander, Major Włodarkiewicz, founded the Secret Polish Army.
These were the nascent rumblings of Nazi resistance, the initial feet to stamp down in defiance of the invading hordes. Pilecki became organization commander of the army (known as Tajna Armia Polska, or TAP, which is a little more bad-ass than Secret Polish Army, or SPA). By 1940, TAP had spread to most major cities in central Poland, acquiring 8000 men and a sizeable – though not massive – cache of weapons. But Pilecki wasn’t satisfied with a smattering of meetings in darkened cellars. He had bigger plans.
He approached his superiors with the completely insane idea of infiltrating the Auschwitz concentration camp, and organizing a resistance movement from inside its walls. Keep in mind, the camp was believed to be a large prison, nothing more. His superiors signed off on the idea, assigned Pilecki a pseudonym, and sent him on his way. It took no time for Pilecki to get rounded up by Nazi troops, beaten with truncheons and shipped off to Auschwitz. He was assigned prisoner number 4859.
It didn’t take long for Pilecki to accomplish his mission. He organized the Zwiazek Organizacji Wojskowej, a union of military operations. ZOW became the go-to organization for everyone trapped in the camp. They found a way to leak information to the Polish underground, which was then able to squeak a few nuggets to the British government in London. Inmates constructed a radio transmitter in 1942, which briefly aided in the spread of information to the good guys on the outside. The problem was, the Allies didn’t think the camp could be taken.
Unfortunately, the Gestapo also owned radios, and they quickly became aware that ZOW was roaming around inside their camp. They began weeding out suspected resistance members and killing them. Pilecki knew there was a way to liberate the camp, and he also suspected the full breadth of genocide was not being conveyed to those on the outside. He’d accomplished his mission, but keeping up morale and organizing dissidence among the prisoners was proving insufficient in comparison to what the Germans were doing.
He had to break out.
After stealing some German documents, Witold Pilecki and two buddies overpowered a guard, cut the phone line and slipped away from Auschwitz on the night of April 26, 1943. He finally made it back to Warsaw in August, spilling all the dirt in a detailed report that was then sent to London. There was no way the Poles could take the camp without Allied backup. And the Allies weren’t hearing it.
“During the first three years, at Auschwitz there perished two million people; in the next two years – three million.” So went Pilecki’s detailed report, which was deemed too fantastic to be real by the British authorities. They refused to lend air support for a liberation mission.
The Polish Home Army still wasn’t willing to move forward alone. In 1944 they proposed a joint attack with the Russian Army (who were now the good guys, and located not too far from the camp), with the promise of support from ZOW on the inside. The Russians said no.
So Pilecki had revealed the truth of the Holocaust and nobody was willing to do anything about it. When the Warsaw Uprising took place on August 1, 1944, Pilecki fought brilliantly, holding onto a fortified area for two weeks before being captured. He spent the rest of the war as a P.O.W., under his own name this time.
After the war, Pilecki’s loyalty remained with the ousted Polish government who had been running things in the 30’s. But they were at odds with the Soviet-backed new government, and once again Pilecki found himself doing recon work and trying to collect evidence of Soviet gulags, and the staged prosecution and murder of those who remained loyal to the Home Army. He was told to get the hell out of Dodge, but refused. He was committed to his cause.
On May 8, 1947, Pilecki was arrested, now deemed to be an enemy of the state by the nation for which he had fought and nearly died. A show trial was held the following year. Pilecki was charged with espionage, use of forged documents, and a laundry list of other acts, some true, some invented. Pilecki plead guilty to the stuff he was actually guilty of doing, all of which was in service of the government he’d sworn to serve.
That was enough to have him executed.
It was all part of an underhanded purge of anyone faithful to the exiled Polish government, an attempt to cement the new communist regime and brush away the old. The man who had revealed the truth of the Holocaust to the world was branded a traitor and eliminated. It was only in 1990, when the ugly shroud of Soviet dominance had been shrugged off Poland’s shoulders, that Pilecki was vindicated. He has since received the Order of the White Eagle, the highest decoration Poland has to offer.
It takes a special breed of human to toss themselves into the most horrible place on earth, just to help those inside find the will to fight. For carrying the weight of the most awful of truths on his shoulders, and for spreading that truth to the eyes who needed to see it (even if they were a little slow on the uptake), Witold Pilecki deserves to be a household name.