Some people move heaven and earth to escape from hell. Witold Pilecki chose to enter it voluntarily. In 1940, the Polish Resistance fighter had himself locked up at Auschwitz-Birkenau. This is his story.
Between 1940 and 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau was a central cog in the Nazis’ death machinery. The most sinister extermination camp of WW2, it took the lives of more than a million men, women and children. Inmates suffered from hunger, cold, hard labor, epidemics, ill-treatment and beatings. With a crushed morale, staying alive was mentally challenging; escaping was out of the question. Only 928 escapes have been attempted, eighty per cent of which failed.
The roundup volunteer
As difficult as escaping the concentration camp may be, it is obvious that no person in his right mind would ever dare to enter it of his own accord… That, however, was the plan of a man named Witold Pilecki. Resistance fighter from the outset, twice decorated for his involvement in the defence of Warsaw in 1920 (he was twenty years of age at the time), the Polish officer saw his country fall under German rule in 1939. And he could not stand it. So he started to recruit fighters for the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska), an underground resistance group.
In September of 1940, alarmed by the scope of ethnic cleansing undertaken at Auschwitz, Pilecki came up with quite dangerous a plan: he would voluntarily be interned at the concentration camp so as to organize rebellion from the inside. Suicidal? Perhaps. While Nazi soldiers were rounding up Jews along Felińskiego street in Warsaw, he joined the crowd of prisoners. Pilecki and 1,800 others were crammed into cattle trains and reached days later their notorious destination.
When Pilecki went through the gate of the Stammlager (Auschwitz’s main camp), he noticed the slogan surrounded by barbed wire: Arbeit macht frei — work sets you free. But the Polish resistance fighter had already his mind set to another kind of freedom. He looked around himself. The Nazi guards were shaving his head, and he wore the striped inmate’s outfit with a red triangle (the sign of political prisoners) and the ID number 4959 stamped upon it. That, he understood, was the first step of his — and his fellow inmates’ — dehumanization. “Our whole crowd behaved like a herd of passive sheep,” he later wrote. “A simple thought kept nagging me: stir up everyone and get this mass of people moving.”
Six weeks of life expectancy: that’s what the SS usually promised to the newcomers. Pilecki, however, was not intimidated. Instead, he started to talk to prisoners, slowly but surely seeding a spirit of resistance within their ranks. Pilecki’s first priority was to describe the horrific life conditions inside the camp: he wrote a detailed report and entrusted a soon-to-be-released prisoner with it, and soon enough, the Polish Resistance had heard from its inside man. The worst was yet to come. From 1942 on, the Zyklon B-powered death machinery sped up. “There are no words to describe it,” Pilecki wrote. “I wanted to say: animal-like cruelty… But no! We are a whole level of hell worse than animals!”
The Great Escape
Unified under Pilecki’s charismatic leadership, the prisoners immediately moved into action. Some built a clandestine radio out of spare parts, to broadcast further reports. Others contaminated SS guards with typhus-infested fleas. Pilecki was sure that his gang, given Allied support, would soon be able to take over the camp… “We were waiting for an order,” the Polish prisoner would later write. But it never came, since both the Secret Polish Army and the Allied general staff had more important priorities to address. Eventually convinced that he would be more useful outside the camp, Pilecki decided to escape from Auschwitz at the first opportunity… With two other inmates – Edek and Jasiek -, he took off in April 1943, managing to escape the camp through the bakery (whose locked doors they crossed with key replicas made of bread crumb).
The Polish officer could have decided his war was over: he had, after all, spent more than thirty months in what must have looked like hell… But Pilecki’s idea of freedom was not limited to his own. So he headed back to Warsaw, heart of the Polish underground movements. In the summer of 1944, he took part in the Warsaw Uprising — sixty days of brutal battles without Allied support, the largest military operation of WW2 undertaken solely by Resistance movements. While it did not manage to drive the Germans out of the city, it cleared the path for the Red Army and the Allied forces to finish the Wehrmacht off. The sinister camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated in January 1945 by Soviet troops. Only 7,000 skeletal prisoners survived.
The Red Scare
While the end of WW2 was celebrated, Witold Pilecki remained vigilant. Suspicious of the puppet governements set up by Stalin across Eastern Europe, he crept back into the shadows and spied for more than two years for his country. As he fought communist dictature and abuse, his life became chaotic: he changed jobs regularly so as not to arise suspicion, and even when his cover was blown, he refused to leave Poland. He was arrested in May 1947, tortured and, after a sham and quick trial, sentenced to death. Upon learning it, he calmly said: “I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would rather feel joy, than fear.”
On May 25, 1943, Witold Pilecki was shot in the back of the neck at the prison of Mokotów, and his body thrown into an unmarked grave. A place where, it was hoped, his life of devotion and sacrifice would quickly be forgotten… But how could one forget about a man who was a Resistance fighter, a spy, a volunteer deportee and a decorated soldier at the same time? “A man fighting for his life can do more than he ever imagined he could” — Pilecki’s ultimate message of hope through desperate times echoes to this day.
- Mamytwink, Histoires de guerre, Michel Lafon, 2020.
- Tal Bruttmann, Auschwitz, La Découverte, 2015.
- Natasha Frost, “Horrors of Auschwitz: The Numbers Behind WWII’s Deadliest Concentration Camp”, History.com, January 23, 2020.
- David de Sola, “The Man Who Volunteered for Auschwitz”, The Atlantic, October 5, 2012.
- John Besemeres, “The Worst of Both Worlds: Captain Witold Pilecki between Hitler and Stalin” A Difficult Neighbourhood: Essays on Russia and East-Central Europe since World War II, ANU Press, Australia, 2016, pp. 63–78, via JSTOR.
- Timothy Snyder, “Were We All People?”, The New York Times, June 22, 2012.