- James Houser
May 25, 1948 - Death of Witold Pilecki, the "Soldier of Auschwitz"
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
May 25, 1948. After a rigged show trial, Witold Pilecki is executed by Communist authorities. World War II's greatest unsung hero, the man who volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz as a spy and whose reports revealed the Holocaust to the world, has been killed by the nation he fought to free. He is possibly the bravest man I have ever written about.
Witold Pilecki’s life started – and ended – under the specter of Russian tyranny. He was not born in Poland, but was instead born in the northern regions of Russia to a Polish noble family. His family had been exiled from Poland following one of the periodic revolts for Polish freedom and resettled to a distant region of Russia to keep them out of trouble. Once his father’s exile had ended, the family relocated to eastern Poland just in time for World War I to sweep over the land.
Pilecki, thanks to his father’s radical beliefs, aligned himself with pro-Polish guerrillas in the area. With Germans and Russians fighting over Polish territory, many splinter groups sprouted up to fight for an independent Poland, which had not existed since the failure of Kosciuszko’s Uprising in 1795. When Russia fell into revolution and Germany was defeated in the First World War, the Poles seized their chance to carve out a new existence for their long-occupied nation. Pilecki joined this movement, becoming a cavalry trooper in the Polish Wars of Independence that by 1921 had made Poland once again a free nation.
Between the World Wars, Pilecki became an officer in the Polish cavalry and settled happily on his family’s estate with his wife Maria. They soon had a happy family with two children. Pilecki became a pillar of his community, advocating for social justice and worker’s rights. He spearheaded agricultural cooperatives, sponsored rural development, and was even the chief of the local fire brigade. His community activism and social work made him a well-respected local figure in the 1930s.
Pilecki’s commitment to his nation, though, would be tested once again when the Nazis come knocking. As part of 19th Infantry Division, Pilecki and his cavalry platoon took part in the futile fight to stop the German blitzkrieg across Poland in 1939. Even in defeat, his men did their best, knocking out seven tanks and shooting down a plane in the desperate struggle. When Warsaw fell, Pilecki and his men retreated into the woods to fight as partisans. Even as some Polish soldiers escaped to fight alongside the Allies, or were captured by the occupying Nazis or Soviets, Pilecki and his small band stayed at large to resist the occupation of their country. Once again, he was a guerrilla.
The underground, though, was fraught with danger – and not just from the Nazis. The group Pilecki had joined was led by a Major Wlodarkiewicz, who leaned towards the far right. He wanted to launch a nationalist, religious resistance movement to defeat German occupation and harbored anti-Semitic views. Pilecki aligned himself instead with the ZWZ (Union of Armed Struggle) which had formed in Warsaw, and tried to keep Woldarkiewicz from espousing his right-wing viewpoints and infecting the Polish resistance. Disgusted with Woldarkiewicz, Pilecki wanted to rebuild Poland on noble ideals and liberal beliefs. Despite his devout Catholicism, Pilecki was a social crusader and liberal thinker, who feared the power of his boss’s reactionary viewpoints.
In 1940, the Polish Resistance got wind of the establishment of a camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which they at first assumed was just an internment camp or large prison. There were already rumors spreading that it was something far worse. The Resistance decided to ask for volunteers to infiltrate the camp and figure out what exactly was going on. Perhaps he was moved by his faith, his Polish patriotism, or his desire to live up to the morals he had established as a community leader; perhaps a little of all of them. Whatever his reasons, Pilecki volunteered. He would go to Auschwitz of his own will.
In September 1940, Pilecki purposely allowed himself to be seized during a German roundup in Warsaw with a false identity card of “Tomasz Serafinski.” After beatings and torture, Pilecki and hundreds of other victims of the roundup were pushed into a boxcar and shipped to the growing camp at Auschwitz. Ten men were randomly pulled from the crowd and shot. Anyone educated or Jewish was savagely tortured. Upon arrival, the new prisoners were stripped, shaved, and assigned numbers and tattoos. The SS guard announced, “Let none of you imagine you will leave this place alive. The rations have been calculated so that you will only survive six weeks.” Pilecki would last much longer than that. For the next three years, Witold Pilecki would be Inmate 4859.
We, in the modern day, know what Auschwitz was and is. In 1940, it was not yet the global gravestone that it would become. The Holocaust as such had not begun; mass murder of Jews was still some distance off. The concentration camp was bad enough, though, and would only get worse as time went on. Guarded by the SS and Gestapo, the Polish inmates at Auschwitz were largely captured resistance fighters, intellectuals, or POWs. Pilecki would remain in the camp for years, and observe it become the Golgotha of the modern world.
Pilecki set about organizing resistance as soon as he was placed in the camp. He put together a “Union of Military Organizations” – the ZOW – early in his imprisonment. Inmate 4859 established contacts all across the camp and began to organize various resistance movements under the noses of the SS. Even though he was stricken and nearly died from pneumonia due to the terrible conditions and maltreatment inside the prison, he became the leader of the resistance movements within Auschwitz.
4859 had to deal with wretched conditions, even before the infamous gas chambers fired up. Prisoners starved. Lice and bedbugs were rampant, and typhus ravaged the camp. Men and women fought for scraps. It was utterly dehumanizing. Pilecki also had to wrangle with multiple factions within the camp, both socialists and right-wing Jews and Poles that he browbeat into joining the ZOW. He was the linchpin, the center, the leader of the only group holding onto their beliefs and faiths in hell.
The ZOW formed a network to steal and distribute food and clothing to prisoners, sabotage Nazi plans, and hide the sick and injured from summary execution by the SS. Soon Pilecki had almost a thousand men operating in the grim hell of Auschwitz, picking up more recruits every time a new group of captives passed under the slogan “Arbeit Mach Frei.” In extraordinary circumstances of misery and deprivation, not one of them ever betrayed each other.
Within the month, Pilecki’s cell was communicating with the outside. They had radio parts smuggled in and managed to build a small transmitter which they used to communicate with the outside world. The ZOW’s contacts carried messages to the Polish Home Army, the main underground movement, and to British intelligence. Pilecki sent out messages that grew increasingly horrific. The Nazis were conducting horrific medical experiments on Poles. They were executing Soviet POWs en masse. The camp was growing, and more inmates arrived weekly.
By 1942, Pilecki and his cell got wind of what was coming. The imprisoned laborers working at the secondary camp nearby reported that they were constructing what appeared to be gas chambers. Many of the laborers then disappeared, murdered in the tests of what was becoming the death factory and crematorium of Auschwitz. Pilecki held on and sent out messages that made their way to Britain as the Holocaust truly began, as hundreds of thousands of Jews arrived at Auschwitz and began to be gassed and cremated within the walls. Surrounded by death, only Pilecki’s organization managed to get out word of the Holocaust. The first the Allies knew of Nazi Germany’s greatest crime was thanks to the first person to truly understand the depths of Nazi evil – Witold.
Pilecki kept asking the British to do something, anything. Could they airdrop some troops to release the prisoners? Could they bomb the train lines? Could they organize a rescue mission? But all of this was in vain. Inmate 4859 had his organization, but an inmate he was still, and was forced to watch as the prisoners of Auschwitz were slowly herded to their death, unable to help them.
In 1943, the Germans got wind of the resistance movement and the messages and began to crack down on the ZOW. They managed to infiltrate the organization and kill many of its members, and were soon sniffing around Pilecki as well. Aware that much of his news and knowledge would die with him, Inmate 4859 arranged his escape. On the night of April 26, he gathered a large number of stolen documents and with a couple of friends jumped a guard and managed to scale the fence and escape. During the flight, they were pursued closely by German forces, and Pilecki was shot – but it was only a flesh wound, and he managed to escape.
Once again at large in Poland, Pilecki joined up with the Polish Underground, trying to arrange a rescue mission for the inmates of Auschwitz but no forces could even get close to the camp. Resigned, Pilecki compiled a massive report on the operations at Auschwitz, which detailed exactly what was happening and who it was happening to. This report made it to the Allies, who dismissed it as exaggerated – no one really believed even the Nazis were capable of such actions.
His efforts in vain, Pilecki signed up to join the Home Army in its Warsaw Uprising of 1944. He concealed his real rank at first, serving as a common soldier until the loss of leaders forced him to take command of a large unit. The Uprising, a futile attempt to throw out the Germans before the Soviets could come impose a Communist government on the region failed. Pilecki was captured by German troops and sent to another POW camp in Bavaria, which probably felt like a vacation compared to Auschwitz, and was liberated there by American troops on April 28, 1945.
Witold Pilecki was now far from home – a home which was occupied by the Soviet Union. He made ties with Anders’ Army, the Free Polish forces I talked about a few days ago who had fostered Wojtek the Soldier Bear, and signed up to serve with them for the remainder of the war. During the last months before the Iron Curtain was firmly in place across Europe, Pilecki spent his time compiling a long report of everything he had seen in Poland under Nazi rule before General Anders approached him with an opportunity.
Anders wanted Pilecki to return to Poland and report on the state of the country under Communist occupation. It would be hard to say Pilecki had not done enough already. He had volunteered to slip into Auschwitz and stayed there for three years; going into an occupied zone as a spy once again seemed like tempting fate. Pilecki, though, wanted Poland to be free from both Nazis and Soviets. He volunteered, once again. This time he would not be so lucky.
Pilecki was arrested by the Communist government of Poland in May 1947 and repeatedly tortured, with both his collarbones broken and his wrists snapped. Interrogated by Soviet authorities well-known for their savagery, he refused to divulge information or give up his fellow agents. He was put on a show trial which he had no chance of winning and charged with all manner of crimes against the state. The Soviet-backed government of Poland was deeply hostile to the Free Polish forces in the West, and viewed them as tools of British influence; Pilecki had worked with British intelligence during his time in Auschwitz, therefore, Pilecki was a British spy.
Witold Pilecki was sentenced to death on May 15, 1948. He only had one thing to say: “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, Pilecki – resistance mastermind, community leader, poet, soldier, spy, prisoner, and insurgent - was summarily executed and buried in a mass grave. His burial place is unknown to this day.
It took until the 1990s for the world to recognize Witold’s accomplishments. His life and memory were suppressed by the Soviet Bloc until the fall of the Polish Communists in 1989, and in 1990 he was officially rehabilitated and posthumously awarded every medal for bravery that the Poles could conjure. By the 2000s, he had become the subject of several Polish films, his book was finally published in English, and he has been recognized as one of the key figures in resistance to the Holocaust. Last year, the first biography of the Soldier of Auschwitz finally saw publication.
With the silence finally lifted, the Nation of Israel added Pilecki to its list of honorable Gentiles who had risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust – the Righteous Among the Nations.
What Inmate 4859 suffered, endured, and achieved was far beyond any imaginable human endurance. It speaks to the light of humanity in the bitterest of worlds, and the bitter fate that meet so many who are prepared to sacrifice anything. Pilecki himself, though, went to his death knowing who he was.
He lived his life so that he did not fear death. Death could not silence him.