Witold Pilecki entered World War II as a Russian-born cavalry officer for Poland and came out of it the founder of the Secret Polish Army, a resistance leader, and not too long after, a victim of torture and execution. The soldier-turned-spy was a prominent figure in war-torn Poland and later as a prisoner at Auschwitz. After the fall of communism in Europe, he became revered in the country, with many streets, books, and films immortalizing Pilecki’s bravery during the war.
Pilecki was born in 1901 in Olonets, Russia, the descendent of Polish dissidents who partook in the 1863 January Uprising and were deported to Russia as punishment. He moved back and forth between Russia and Wilno, now the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, where he was a member of the underground Polish scout movement.
Following World War I, Pilecki joined the militia to fight against the Russians in the Polish-Soviet War. A brief stint at an art school was cut short by a lack of funds and his father's declining health, so Pilecki decided to climb through the ranks of the military instead. He became a cavalry officer and received a series of promotions throughout the 1920s and 30s, while raising a family of his own in Wilno.
1939 saw Hitler invade Poland, plunging Europe into the Second World War. Pilecki was mobilized as a cavalry platoon commander and saw heavy combat against the Germans; his infantry division was almost completely destroyed. Pilecki and his surviving fellow troops were then reincorporated into a new division and sent to Lwow, now Ukraine's L’viv, where they saw some success in destroying German tanks and aircraft before the Soviets invaded eastern Poland.
By the end of September 1939, Pilecki’s new infantry unit had capitulated and were ordered to retreat to France via Romania. Not many obeyed the orders. Pilecki chose to stay in occupied Poland and fight an underground war against the Germans, and plenty of fellow soldiers followed suit.
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Along with several other high-ranking Polish soldiers, Pilecki formed the Secret Polish Army (Tajma Armia Polska, or TAP), in early November of that year. Pilecki served as the chief of staff until May 1940, when he headed the organization and mobilization of its 1st branch. TAP was active in Warsaw, Podlasie, Kielce and more, with up to 19,000 members at its peak. However, after the organization had been infiltrated by an informer, leading to the arrest of two of its leaders, it was decided that drastic action needed to be taken. Someone needed to infiltrate Auschwitz, which was not yet widely known as a death camp. Pilecki stepped forward.
While differing accounts exist of how he was able to infiltrate the concentration camp, it's believed that Pilecki allowed himself to be arrested on September 19, 1940 under the name Tomasz Serafinski. Inside the walls of the concentration camp, Pilecki began organizing an underground resistance movement known as Związek Organizacji Wojskowej (ZOW), which eventually numbered in the hundreds. ZOW was split into five-man cells that would help raise camp morale, distribute supplies, bring news of the outside world in and reports of genocide and other war crimes out, and organize a potential uprising in tandem with the Home Army, the dominant resistance force in occupied Poland.
For two and a half years, Pilecki drew up reports that were smuggled out and into Allied hands, the first-ever intelligence intel on Nazi concentration camps. His hopes for the Home Army to drop arms and paratroopers into the camp never materialized, however, and some on the outside dismissed his reports, thinking his tales of the atrocities he witnessed had to be exaggerated.
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By 1943, the Gestapo focused on rooting out and exterminating ZOW members, and often succeeded. Pilecki had already written extensively about the gas chambers and crematoria that could kill thousands daily, along with the medical experiments conducted by the Nazis. With the Gestapo pressing down on ZOW, he decided it was time to escape.
In April 1943, Pilecki and two comrades were assigned to work the late shift at the camp bakery, outside the Auschwitz fence. They barricaded the guards into a cabin and made their escape into the woods.
Now free again, Pilecki briefly united with his wife and two children, then made a more formal report about the brutal conditions inside the concentration camp, hoping to convince the Home Army to liberate Auschwitz. The resistance army turned his requests down, citing a lack of weapons, transportation, and shelter necessary to be successful during and after such a massive uprising. Pilecki joined one of the Home Army’s sabotage units, while making efforts to stay in contact with ZOW.
However, the Home Army was able to stage a different liberation effort: the Warsaw Uprising, which broke out on August 1, 1944. Pilecki swiftly volunteered as a common foot soldier. It was only when several officers were killed did he reveal his true rank, and took command of a company of rebels. The uprising lasted for over two months, with no outside support from the Allies, the single largest effort by any resistance group during the war. Pilecki was captured by the Germans and kept as a prisoner-of-war until his own liberation in 1945. But his freedom would be tragically short-lived.
After World War II ended, Pilecki, who had been a member of secret anti-communist organizations, began spying for the Polish government-in-exile against Warsaw’s new communist leaders. His identity was uncovered in 1946, but he refused to leave Poland; by May of the following year, he was captured, arrested, tortured, and sentenced to death. Pleas for a pardon to Polish politicians were not granted, and Witold Pilecki was executed on May 25th, 1948, and buried in an unmarked grave.
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Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Pilecki has become a historical war hero for Poland, particularly for his voluntary years of service in the nightmarish hellscape that was Auschwitz, and his consistent pleas to have the concentration camp liberated. His diary from within the camp has been translated and published, along with several books about his exploits and heroics in organizing the Polish Resistance. Streets, statues, and tombs have been dedicated in his honor, along with several patriotic films detailing the soldier’s life and the untimely death of a man who lived through Auschwitz but died at the hands of his own government.
Sources: The Washington Post, NPR