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The unbelievable story of Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to go to Auschwitz.

Updated: May 13, 2021

In 1940, in occupied Poland, Witold Pilecki, a 39-year old veteran of the Polish-Soviet War of 1920, who fought as an officer in the Polish army against the German invasion of Poland in 1939, and a member of the Polish resistance movement, volunteered to infiltrate Auschwitz.

His mission was to allow himself to be arrested and captured by the Germans and to be sent to Auschwitz. Once inside the camp, he collected intelligence for the Polish resistance and for the government-in-exile in London, and organized a resistance movement inside the camp. He describes his own entrance to Ausch­witz in 1940, when it was a camp for Poles, as the moment when he “bade farewell to everything I had hitherto known on this earth and entered something seemingly no longer of it.”

Pilecki's mug shot in Auschwitz

During his time in Auschwitz Pilecki managed to organise a resistance movement inside the camp. The main objectives of the resistance movement were to help prisoners survive, to collect intelligence on German atrocities in the camps and to organize escapes. Their ultimate goal was to organize an uprising in the camp to coincide with an Allied bombing or a Polish Home Army raid, neither of which came. While in the camp he wrote "Witold's Report", the first intelligence report on Auschwitz concentration camp and the German crimes that were perpetuated there. He wrote about the German industrial scale mass slaughter of Polish and European Jews happening there which he had witnessed firsthand. He and the Polish underground managed to smuggle his reports out of the camp and into the free world and enabled the Polish government-in-exile to inform the western Allies that the Jewish Holocaust was taking place; not that the Allies cared.

Polish underground courier, Professor Jan Karski, who delivered Witold's report to FDR and Churchill talks about FDR's reaction to it.

In 1943, after nearly 3 years of torture, starvation and inhumane imprisonment, Pilecki and two other inmates overpowered a guard, cut the phone line and escaped the camp taking with them secret documents stolen from the Germans.

In August 1944 Pilecki participated in the Warsaw Uprising which was meant to free the Polish capital from German occupation before the Red Army arrived. At first, he fought in the northern city center as a simple private, without revealing his actual rank. Later, as many officers fell, he disclosed his true identity and accepted command. He was considered as one of the uprising's many heroes, holding the city’s major east-west thoroughfare, Jerusalem Alley, then an important position near the railway station, despite overwhelming German numbers.

He was captured by the Germans when the uprising ended and was sent to a prison camp. After the war ended Pliecki found himself in liberated Italy, a free man for the first time in six years.

Pilecki in Italy in 1945.

In 1945 he volunteered and went back back to occupied Poland and to report about the horrors that the Russians were committing there. Poland, the first ally in the war against Hitler and Germany, was betrayed by its western allies and was sold to Stalin, and was now under Russian occupation and at the height of the Stalinist terror regime. Ever since Soviet Russia occupied Poland in 1944, The Russians have deported millions of Poles to Siberia and had murdered, tortured and imprisoned hundreds of thousands more. Pilecki was collecting evidence of Soviet atrocities and had organized a secret and clandestine intelligence gathering network throughout occupied Poland.

In July 1946, Pilecki was informed that his cover was blown and was ordered to leave; he declined. 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, torture and imprisonment in Soviet Gulag camps.

On 8 May 1947, he was arrested. He was was tortured for months by men who were especially famous for their savagery, but Pilecki sought to protect other prisoners and revealed no sensitive information. He was finally placed on a show trial in 1948 and was sentenced to death.

Pilecki during his show trial in Russian occupied Poland in 1948.

In his last conversation with his wife he told her that what he went through in Auschwitz was child's play compared with what he endured in the months leading up to his trial.

His final words before his execution at the Rakowiecka Prison in May 1948 were “Long live free Poland”. Witold Pilecki and all others sentenced in the Communist show trials were rehabilitated on 1 October 1990. He is now considered as one of Poland's national heroes, and a symbol of freedom and courage. Bibliography: “The Ausch­witz Volunteer”, Witold Pilecki. "Six Faces of Courage", Michael Foot. Witold Pilecki's report -

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