WITOLD PILECKI was a reserve officer in the Polish Army born 13 May 1901 in Olonets, Russia. During World War II while attached to a Polish resistance group, he volunteered for an operation that saw him intentionally imprisoned in Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz death camp in order to gather intelligence on the site’s operations. As early as 1941, Pilecki’s reports informed the Western Allies of the atrocities being committed at the death camp. Before escaping Auschwitz, Pilecki organized a resistance movement right under the noses of the camp’s Nazi German overseers, kapos and administrative staff.
Before his time in Auschwitz, Pilecki fought against the Germans during the 1939 Defensive War*
A significant group of the first Auschwitz prisoners was Poles engaged in conspiracy activities, and the first transports that arrived in the camp from Warsaw carried members of the TAP. These prisoners, among others, were going to form the backbone of the military resistance movement.
In the summer of 1940, with several members of TAP behind KL Auschwitz’s well-guarded perimeter, Major Włodarkiewicz decided it would be prudent to send an officer to the camp on an intelligence gathering mission: at the time, little was known about what went on inside of the camp. When Pilecki heard of Włodarkiewicz desire to send someone to the camp, he volunteered and presented a plan to infiltrate Auschwitz, gather first-hand information on its functions and organize a resistance movement inside the camp. His plan was approved.
On 19 September 1940, Pilecki deliberately entered an area of Warsaw where the German Army was conducting a roundup of Polish civilians. 2,000 civilians, including Pilecki, were detained by the Germans that day. After two days of detention in the former barracks of Poland’s Light Horse Guards, where prisoners suffered beatings with rubber truncheons, Pilecki was sent to Auschwitz and was registered with number 4859. Since he carried false identification documents, he was registered under the name Tomasz Serafiński.
That autumn, now a prisoner of Auschwitz, Pilecki created a new organization inside of the camp called the Union of Military Organization (Związek Organizacji Wojskowej or ZOW). ZOW quickly merged with another organization operating behind the camp’s walls, under the command of Union of Armed Struggle/Home Army (Związek Walki Zbrojnej or ZWZ/AK). This resistance organization aimed to help the morale of prisoners being held at KL Auschwitz by disseminating news from the fronts of World War II, clandestinely acquiring much needed food, clothing, and medicines for the prisoners, forwarding messages from outside of the camp, assisting in the organization of escapes and preparing their own members to take over the camp in collaboration with the partisans operating in the area.
Reports from members of the resistance movement were initially sent via prisoners released from the camp, through prisoners who managed to escape and then also by initiated civilian workers employed by the SS men during the expansion of Auschwitz. From the beginning of 1940, these reports began to arrive systematically in Warsaw. The first message sent by Pilecki reached London on 18 March 1941. This document primarily contained a description of crimes committed by the Germans and the situation and living conditions in the camp. For this reason, from the end of June 1942, one can encounter numerous references to the murder of Jews in the gas chambers and to the rapid increase in the number of registered Jewish prisoners. The bodies of people who were killed in the gas chambers were buried in mass graves, a practice also described in Pilecki’s message, and these people did not even go through the registration procedure, which means that the number of victims is potentially larger than what we know today. In 1942, Pilecki’s resistance movement was also broadcasting details on the number of arrivals and deaths in the camp and the inmates’ conditions using a secret radio transmitter that was built by camp inmates.
In the spring of 1943, after providing intelligence on the inner workings of Auschwitz to the Western Allies for close to three years, Pilecki, sensing that he could soon be exposed and feeling that it was important that he submitted a first-hand report on the horrors he’d seen in the camp, decided that it was time to escape. For this purpose, his ZOW compatriots arranged for him to be moved to the bakers’ kommando, which worked outside the main camp (about 2 km north). Two other prisoners with whom he intended to escape, Edward Ciesielski and Jan Redzej, were also transferred to the same Kommando.
While working at the camp’s bakery, Pilecki, Ciesielski and Redzej made their escape during the night of 26/27 April 1943. The prisoners cut telephone and alarm ring wires, opened unlocked the front door with a duplicate key and slid the bolts locking the door, open. As soon as they were outside of the bakery building, the trio barricaded the door that they’d just exited to ensure they could not be easily followed and ran east. That night, they crossed the Soła river and swam across the Vistula river before reaching a nearby forest in a boat that they had managed to find.
After taking the day after their escape to recuperate, they continued their march east, crossing the border of the General Government. After a few more days of hard travel, the trio of escapees reached Nowy Wiśnicz near Bochnia, where they established contact with the regional Headquarters of the Home Army. Speaking to the Home Army’s regional commanders, Pilecki suggested the creation of a unit which would attack the Nazi German SS garrison in Auschwitz and liberate the prisoners. The regional command officers rejected Pilecki’s plan, saying that it would be unrealistic to assume that such an operation would be a success.
In August 1943, Pilecki reached Warsaw, where, at the General Headquarters of the Home Army, he presented an extensively detailed report concerning resistance activities and the disposition of prisoners in Auschwitz: the murder of Poles, Soviet POWs, and Jews, and the establishment of the Zigeunerlager (Gypsy camp) for Sini & Roma prisoners.
Sentenced To Death
In August 1944, Pilecki fought in the Warsaw Uprising* and was captured in the wake of the uprising’s collapse. As a result, Pilecki was sent to the Murnau POW camp in Bavaria. After the camp was liberated by the American military, he made his way to Italy to join the Polish Second Corps—a military unit that played an essential role during the Allies campaign in the region. Returning to Poland at the end of 1945, he performed intelligence work for the Second Corps. On 8 May 1947, Pilecki was arrested by agents of the Ministry of Public Security (Ministerstwo Bezpieczeństwa Publicznego or MBP) Poland’s post-war communist secret police service. The pro-communist MBP were no friends to pro-western military forces like the Second Corps. Prior to his trial, Pilecki was repeatedly tortured, but he sought to protect other prisoners and revealed no sensitive information.
On 3 March 1948, a show trial took place. Pilecki was charged with illegal border crossing, use of forged documents, not enlisting with the military, carrying illegal arms, espionage for General Władysław Anders, espionage for “foreign imperialism” (thought to be British intelligence) and planning to assassinate several officials of the Ministry of Public Security of Poland. Pilecki denied the assassination charges, as well as espionage, although he admitted to passing information to the 2nd Polish Corps, of which he was an officer of. Accordingly, he claimed that he was not breaking any laws. He pleaded guilty to the other charges. Testimony against Pilecki was presented by a future Polish prime minister, Józef Cyrankiewicz, himself an Auschwitz survivor. On 15 May, along with three of his comrades, Pilecki was sentenced to death.
Witold Pilecki was murdered in Mokotów Prison on 25 May 1948 by a single gunshot to the back of the head.
“The life of Witold Pilecki – besides his activities in the camp – was an example of a pro-state attitude of the highest order. After a year in the prison on Rakowiecka, undergoing torture, among others in the hands of his captor the secret police officer – Eugeniusz Chimczak, he was sentenced to death by a military court composed of Jan Hryckowian and Józef Badecki and was killed by a shot in the back of the head by the executioner Piotr Śmietański, at the age of 47,” said Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński, director of the Auschwitz Museum.
* 1939 Defensive War: a series of battles that ended with Poland under Nazi Germany’s control. With Poland under German occupation, Pilecki changed tactics. Instead of fighting in an open war as a solider, he made his way to Warsaw where he helped to create a resistance group known as the Polish Secret Army (Tajna Armia Polska or TAP,) which came to be headed by Major Jan Włodarkiewicz.
* Warsaw Uprising: it was a major World War II operation, in the summer of 1944, by the Polish underground resistance, led by the Home Army (Armia Krajowa), to liberate Warsaw from German occupation.
Learn more about Polish military resistance at Auschwitz from the Auschwitz Memorial online exhibition at Google Cultural Institute.
Learn more about the resistance in Auschwitz.
Please do not share the photos without proper attribution and context.
Special thanks to Auschwitz Memorial and Museum for collaborating with me on this project and providing all the information above. Sponsored by the Michael Frank Family Charitable Fund. Collaborator: Seamus Bellamy.