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Witold Pilecki, Poland’s unknown hero

Note: this is a longer post, but worth the read if you want to hear an amazing story. The life of Witold Pilecki resembles action movie plots. Do you know all those movies where the good guy gets inside the prison (falsely accused or voluntarily) and he finds out about the horrible events of the prison and the corrupt, evil and sadistic prison director? Well, what’s Witold Pilecki is most famous for is that in 1940 he got himself arrested to get inside Auschwitz so that he can supply information about it to the Polish resistance. He organized a resistance group inside (ZOW) and supplied the first reports about Auschwitz. Pilecki waited for the intervention of the Home Army and the Allies. But a year passed, and then another without any help from the outside…in 1943 when the ZOW’s work became very difficult, Pilecki escaped. His other amazing feat is fighting like Rambo in the Warsaw uprising. After WWII he returned to Poland to fight the communist government but he was caught and executed. Due to communist oppression he remained and continues to remain relatively unknown – at least outside Poland. Last year when I visited Auschwitz I went specifically to the Polish block to find what they had about him.  There was a quite detailed exhibition about resistance groups inside Auschwitz, but about Pilecki: only a picture and some text only in Polish. I think this man, a true patriot, deserves to be better known, so here’s his amazing story.

 

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 Before Auschwitz

Witold Pilecki was born near Lake Ladoga, he went to school in Lithuania. He was an officer at a cavalry regiment before the Second World War. During the German invasion he fought in the Lwów area. He founded one of the first resistance organizations in Poland which later merged into the Home Army.

 

Arriving at Auschwitz

Warsaw, 1940. Very little is known about Auschwitz where the Germans transport members of the Polish resistance. Our hero, a member of the Home Army, proposes and then executes successfully a crazy plan: he gets himself arrested and transported to Auschwitz to gather information and to organize a resistance group inside. In 1940 many Polish families still supported the resistance eagerly, providing hiding places in their houses. Pilecki had several rooms available in the town, as well as different fake IDs. Usually he was without an ID, so that when asked he could lead the authorities to the house and the ID he deemed safest. But now he had obtained an excellent ID: it was a real ID for a member of the Home Army, who had to leave to the area before his ID (an authentic one) was ready. All Pilecki had to do was changing the photo.

On the day he got himself arrested he took this ID with him. So he was transported to Auschwitz under a false name: Tomasz Serafiński. This was very dangerous. If the Germans found this out, there would be no more questions asked; Pilecki would be released at once through the chimney.

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At Auschwitz Pilecki was given a number, they took his possessions away and his data had to be entered to the registry. Before taking his photograph, Pilecki stuffed his mouth to alter his appearance. Then another difficulty arose. Pilecki’s ID didn’t have the mother’s maiden name on it, so when asked, Pilecki had to make one up.

Almost caught

All of the above meant that sooner or later Pilecki would be in danger. At first an SS-man found it suspicious that he doesn’t really resemble the photo, but Pilecki said the swelling was due to a kidney problem and the German let it pass.

The false name also created problems several times, but Pilecki was always lucky. When an old acquaintance was brought to Auschwitz, he started shouting gladly to Pilecki, stating his real name. Fortunately all of those who heard it were trustworthy. Later a prisoner confronted him about his real name. Pilecki told him it was a mistake. This man meant no harm either – a couple of weeks later he became a ZOW member.

Shortly after the arrival at Auschwitz the prisoners were woken up in the night and an interrogation took place. Each prisoner had to give an address to which the authorities could write “if an accident should happen”. This also meant that they had a trace to the families of the prisoners. Pilecki gave the address of his sister-in-law, but as a “friend”, although he declared that his mother was still alive (Pilecki’s real mother had been dead for years).  Writing letters was obligatory and all of them went through censorship, so prisoners always wrote “everything’s fine”. Pilecki wrote a letter only once and this was suspicious. Sometime later He was summoned to the Erkennungsdienst. Pilecki insisted he had been writing letters, but they were returned to him. He was asked to go to his block accompanied by an SS-man to get those letters. Pilecki was already prepared: he had obtained some special zurück envelopes (these were used when the censors found the letters unsuitable) and put in them some previously written “I’m good …” letters. When he presented this evidence, the SS-man concluded that Pilecki should have been writing to his mother, so Pilecki was going to have to get the address in the registry changed.

The final time when Pilecki was specifically targeted by the authorities was at the end of 1941. Most of the people from Pilecki’s transport were already dead and the political department started examining the data of these still living “old numbers”. They spent letters to relevant parishes and asked for data to see if they corresponded to what they had in their registry. As Pilecki had to make up the mother’s maiden name, he knew that would not match. Luckily at that time many prisoners were released, among them ZOW members as well. Pilecki could send out the name he had given and his colleagues outside had it changed in the parish.

How Pilecki’s organization got rid of spies and enemies. Work and daily life in the camp. Changes over the years.

 

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About the author

János Gömöri

János lives in Budapest. He is interested in music, history, coding and linguistics.

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