Witold Pilecki: The Man who Broke into Auschwitz
If it hadn’t been for Auschwitz prisoner number 4859, Western governments would not have understood the nature of the atrocities that were carried out there as early as they did.
The prisoner was Cavalry Captain Witold Pilecki, who in 1940 presented a plan to get himself arrested by the Nazi German forces occupying Poland, and incarcerated in Auschwitz. His aim was to collect intelligence about the camp, and then to escape.
He allowed himself to be captured during a round-up of ‘undesirables’ in Warsaw, and soon found himself in Auschwitz, where he gathered the information that gave the Allies a true picture of what they had previously thought to have been a prison.
It took Captain Pilecki two years to escape from his self-imposed nightmare, but by the time he did, the world had a new and terrible contemporary understanding of an ancient word: Holocaust.
The Auschwitz volunteer continued to help the fight against the Nazis, taking part in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Having survived both this and the concentration camp, he fell foul of the new, Russian Communist occupiers; he was arrested by secret police on May 8, 1947. After torture and imprisonment, his trial began on March 3, 1948. Facing court martial, he was accused of spying for the Polish government in exile, using false papers, illegal possession of firearms, failing to register his presence with the authorities, entering Poland illegally, and conspiring to overthrow the government. He admitted most of the charges – with the exception of conspiracy. On May 15 he was convicted and sentenced to death, and executed with a single bullet to the back of his head in Warsaw’s Mokotów prison, on May 25, 1948.
It is thought that Captain Pilecki was buried at Warsaw’s Powązki Cemetery, but excavations have so far failed to find his body. A symbolic headstone has been erected at the Ostrów-Mazowiecka cemetery.
Captain Pilecki’s story circulated underground, but only really came to the surface after the fall of Communism in Poland, in 1989.
Kraków marked the 65th anniversary of his death, with a march from the Mariacki Church to Park Jordana, where Pilecki is commemorated with a bust. Simultaneously, a wreath was laid in his honour at Auschwitz.
Captain Pilecki’s story is told in the book The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery. The text of his official report from Auschwitz is available to download in English and Polish. They are also available online, from Witoldsreport.blogspot.com and Polandpolska.org.
Picture: Pilecki in Mokotów prison