It is May 1948 in a Warsaw prison in Soviet occupied Poland where a middle-aged man is taken from his prison cell and killed by a single shot to the back of his head. Swiftly, his body is secretly loaded on to a truck and taken to an undisclosed location where an unmarked grave awaits his arrival.
But who is this man and why did the all-powerful Soviet authorities want to airbrush him from history?
The man is Captain Witold Pilecki, a Polish Army Officer, who is described as one of the six bravest underground soldiers of WW2 by British historian Professor Michael Foot in his book “Six Faces of Courage”.
Witold Pilecki was born in Russia on 13 May 1901, where the Pilecki family had been deported by the Tsarist regime in retaliation for their participation in the 1863 uprising against the Russian occupation forces.
After Poland gained independence in 1918, Pilecki joined the regular Polish Army and took part in one of the most significant battles in the entire history of mankind (according to the Creasy- Abernon list): the 1920 Battle of Warsaw, in which the Polish Army stopped the invasion of Poland by the Soviet Red Army.
On 1st September 1939, Germany invaded Poland from the west while two weeks later the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east. With Occupied Poland firmly in the grip of its two powerful neighbours, the country was partitioned and by October open resistance by the Polish people was futile.
However, Pilecki, by now a platoon commander of a cavalry squadron, continued fighting in spite of the odds until 17 October 1939. Thereafter, he joined the clandestine Armed Confederation and fought underground.
With the fall of Poland, the German and Soviet occupiers implemented their plan to covertly commit genocide by murdering millions of people.
And so, the Wehrmacht (Gemany’s uniformed armed forces), the Gestapo and the SS undertook random street arrests (roundups) and screening of captives. Anyone declared “an enemy” was murdered or deported to an unknown location. Such events took place on a massive scale. Pilecki suspected that some of his colleagues had been taken to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (“Auschwitz”). To confirm his suspicions, and report on the state and treatment of prisoners in Auschwitz, Pilecki, with the approval of his superiors, volunteered to be captured and imprisoned in Auschwitz.
Pilecki assumed a false identity – Tomasz Serafinski – and deliberately walked into a mass street roundup in Warsaw expecting he would be arrested and taken to Auschwitz. And so he voluntarily became part of the second transport of prisoners to leave Warsaw. He arrived in Auschwitz on the night of 21st September 1940 and was tattooed with the prisoner number 4859.
In Auschwitz, Pilecki organised many of the imprisoned officers into the clandestine Union of Military Organisation (“UMO”), so as to gather intelligence on the state and treatment of the prisoners. During the next three years Pilecki was subjected to inhumane treatment by the Nazis while covertly gathering the intelligence.
Pilecki passed the intelligence on to the Allies which authoritatively described the full horror of Auschwitz. From 1941 onwards, Pilecki, via the Polish resistance, became the principle source of intelligence continuously informing the world of the genocide taking place in Auschwitz. The intelligence passed on contained early evidence of the implementation of the “Final Solution”. The evidence included information about the construction of gas chambers. In 1942, the Polish Government in Exile sent a memorandum to the League of Nations entitled “The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland”. The memorandum was largely ignored by the League of Nations, as were subsequent approaches by the Polish Government in Exile to Western Allied Governments.
In an effort to end the extermination, Pilecki and his fellow officers constructed a plan to liberate Auschwitz with the outside help of the Allies. However, after learning that the Allies would not assist in the plan, Pilecki decided to escape from Auschwitz.
During the night of the 26th April 1943, Pilecki, together with two other prisoners successfully escaped from Auschwitz. Three months later they reached Warsaw, in spite of being pursued by the Gestapo. While in Warsaw, Pilecki compiled a comprehensive report, “Report W”, for the Polish Resistance. Report W is an astonishing historical document: it comprehensively details the evolution and horror of the inhumane crimes committed at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1943. The report provides indisputable evidence of the mass murder of Jewish people and people from many nations.
After compiling his report, Pilecki was active in the Polish underground and in 1944 he took part in the Warsaw Uprising. After the Uprising was suppressed, Pilecki was taken to a German POW camp in Murnau. Following the liberation of this camp, in April 1945, Pilecki was freed and joined the ranks of the Polish II Corps in Italy under the command of General Anders.
In October 1945, Pilecki returned to Soviet occupied Poland under orders from General Anders to organise an intelligence network. He collected intelligence on the Polish soldiers killed or deported to the Soviet Union by the Stalinist secret police, the NKVD, and on the activities of the Polish puppet regime’s secret police (UrzÄ…d BezpieczeÅ„stwa). Pilecki continued collecting intelligence in spite of receiving subsequent orders to return to Italy because of the growing risk of arrest. In May 1947 Pilecki was arrested by Public Security operatives, imprisoned and savagely tortured. A year later, Pilecki was subjected to a show trial and then taken out of his cell and killed by a single shot to the back of his head.
Although the body was secretly taken to an unmarked grave, the name Witold Pilecki will never be airbrushed from history.”¯
In acknowledging Pilecki’s contribution to history, Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland said: ‘Pilecki was an example of inexplicable goodness at a time of inexplicable evil. There is an ever-growing awareness of Poles helping Jews in the Holocaust, and how they paid with their lives, like Pilecki. We must honour these examples and follow them today in the parts of the world where there are horrors again.’
The Jewish Holocaust Centre, 13-15 Selwyn Street, Elsternwick 3185, Melbourne, Australia is holding a special event to commemorate Captain Witold Pilecki on Sunday 16th February 2014. Booking and Inquiries tel : 03 9528 1985 Email: email@example.com
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This post was written by Andrew Balcerzak