When you think of heroes from the Holocaust era, you might think of names like Anne Frank, Corrie ten Boom, and Oskar Schindler. There’s another name you should know because of his heroic actions during the Holocaust: Witold Pilecki.
Pilecki’s bravery was unmatched. He holds claim to an amazing feat: He is the only person to ever be voluntarily imprisoned at the Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied Poland during World War II.
A Duty to Fight
In some ways, Pilecki enjoyed a simple life in the early 1900s. He was born to patriotic Polish parents in a small town under the Russian Empire’s control. He married in 1931 and had two children, making his home in Lida, Poland (now in Belarus). He ran the family farm and enjoyed painting and writing poetry.
But war was an inescapable part of his life since he was a young man. He served in the Polish army in the Polish-Soviet war shortly after World War I ended, finding himself in the middle of brutal battles, including the Polish retreat from Kiev and the Battle of Warsaw.
After a peaceful hiatus, Pilecki returned to military duty in August 1939 when he was called up to defend Poland against the Nazi invasion. Though the Nazis were successful, Pilecki survived and traveled to Warsaw to fight them with the Polish underground resistance, known as the Home Army.
A group of Polish political opponents were imprisoned in Auschwitz in August 1940. When their families were soon notified they were dead, the Polish underground needed someone to investigate. Pilecki volunteered.
He intentionally planted himself in a Gestapo sweep to get arrested and sent to Auschwitz. The experience was even worse than he imagined. Instantly after exiting the train car he was beaten with clubs. Those who were Jewish or educated were severely beaten, some to death. Ten men were shot at random upon arrival. The rest were robbed, stripped, shaved, and assigned a number.
“Let none of you imagine that he will ever leave this place alive.”
“Let none of you imagine that he will ever leave this place alive,” a Nazi soldier told the prisoners. “The rations have been calculated so that you will only survive six weeks.”
Many died as the soldier said. But after two and a half years, Pilecki had survived despite facing infestation, starvation, and disease. Many were worked to death. Others escaped this punishment by jumping into the electrified fence to kill themselves.
But Pilecki refused to succumb to the torture. Starting with just a few men, he grew an underground force of 1,000 to sabotage the Nazis, aid other prisoners, and spread hope for survival among the camp. While betrayal was common among prisoners just trying to make it out alive, not one man in Pilecki’s group betrayed the others.
The barbaric conditions of the camp led Pilecki to request the British to do one thing: Bomb Auschwitz. Little by little he learned the full scope of the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish race. They were conducting inhumane medical experiments on prisoners, preparing for mass executions in gas chambers, and ultimately killing hundreds of thousands. So Pilecki pleaded for the British to at least bomb the train lines leading to the gas chambers or to create a distraction to help the prisoners escape. He was willing to die if it meant stopping the unbearable Nazi evil.
He was willing to die if it meant stopping the unbearable Nazi evil.
The British pondered it, but without the help of the United States (who had not yet entered the war), they did not believe they could have effectively carried out the bombing. Yet they failed to realize once the U.S. joined the war they were then capable of carrying out the mission. In his book detailing Pilecki’s mission, former war correspondent Jack Fairweather considered the plan to bomb Auschwitz “one of history’s great might-have-beens.”
Escape and Recapture
For two more years Pilecki smuggled notes detailing the horrors the prisoners faced and requested help. But the Allies never gave the prisoners the help they needed to escape or rise against the Nazis. Pilecki could see the writing on the wall, so he began his own escape. Yet he never lost sight of his mission, as he helped escapees flee to freedom, including once giving up his own escape plan using the sewers so an inmate in more need could break out.
A failed escape attempt meant a public execution. But along with two friends, Pilecki made his escape through the camp bakery. They walked for a week before resting in safety.
Though he could have taken a much-deserved reassignment into safer work, Pilecki continued to fight against the Nazis. He returned to Warsaw where he again joined the ranks of Polish resistance, but his heroism went unrewarded, as he was soon imprisoned in German POW camps. Rather than having to make another daring escape, he was liberated at the end of World War II. Finally, after his grueling, years-long journey, he was free and able to write his comprehensive report on his experiences at Auschwitz.
Despite the elimination of Nazi rule, Pilecki found Poland not much better than when he left it. It was still a communist puppet state for a few years, so his desire to see Poland become a free republic spelled his doom. He was arrested in communist Poland, accused of spying and attempted assassination, and tortured. Tragically, Pilecki did not enjoy the fruit of his labor in freeing Auschwitz prisoners, as he was executed in 1948, one year after his capture.
Decades went by before Pilecki was recognized as a hero. The misinformation campaign in communist Poland took its toll on public opinion for more than 40 years. But in the 1990s, Pilecki was honored posthumously and recognized for his efforts to battle the Nazis in the most dangerous prison camp on Earth. In 2017 the Polish Parliament established the Pilecki Institute in his honor to recognize Polish people like himself who were murdered for helping Jewish people in the Holocaust.
Today he is remembered as a hero. His courage continues to live beyond him as an example for those who seek to help the Jewish people today.