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Witold Pilecki served as a soldier and rittmeister in the Polish Calvary during the World War II. He voluntarily became imprisoned in Auschwitz to collect intelligence, known as the Pilecki Report, before escaping. He participated in the Warsaw Uprising and many other battles with the Polish resistance prior to his arrest and execution.

Youth and Military Beginnings

Witold Pilecki was born on May 13, 1901, in Olonots, Karelia, Russia. The Imperial Russian government forced his family to resettle there after suppressing the January Uprising in Poland from 1863-1864. His father, Julian Pilecki worked as a forester and his mother, Ludwika Osiecimska, bore five children in total. The family moved to Wilno, modern Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1910 where Pilecki began elementary school. He also joined the underground Polish Scouting and Guiding Association (Związek Harcerstwa Polskiego, or ZHP, in Polish). [1] He, his mother, and his siblings moved to Orle, Poland in 1916 when the threat of German invasion in Wilno became too great. There he started his own ZHP chapter. Pilecki returned to Wilno in 1918 with his mother and siblings and he finished school. When the Germans withdrew from the city, leaving it open to the Bolsheviks, he and other ZHP volunteers joined General Wladyslaw Wejtko to prepare a defense. He then participated in the Polish-Soviet War between 1919 and 1920 while serving in the Polish Army. In 1921, the Peace of Riga ended the Polish-Soviet War and Pilecki returned to school and the scouts. In February, he joined the National Security Association (NSA). He graduated in May and began non-commissioned officer training at the NSA. He then spent 10 months training at the Grudziąc Cavalry Reserve Officers' Training Centre. He began studies at the University of Stefan Batory in 1922, but could not finish due to lack of money and family debts. He took over his family’s estate in September 1926 and started rebuilding it. The same year the military promoted him to second lieutenant. Over the next several years, he helped organize lancer and cavalry training drills, and several more promotions until gaining command of the 1st Lidzki Squadron of PW in the 19th Division of Infantry in 1937.[2]

Personal Life and The Secret Polish Army

Wiltold Pilecki’s early dedication to social work reveals the selfless character that led to his volunteering to infiltrate Auschwitz.

Witold Pilecki married Maria Ostrowska, a local school teacher, on April 7, 1931. They bore two children, Andrzej in January 1932 and Zofia in March 1933. He continued to revamp his family estate and dedicated much time to social work, founding an agricultural club, running a milk factory, and pursuing creative interests like writing poetry and painting. The Polish government awarded him the Silver Cross of Merit in 1938 for his community service. When World War II started on August 26, 1939, Pilecki joined the Polish Army as a cavalry platoon leader, eventually serving under Major Jan Wlodarkiewicz. After the Soviets invaded on Sept 17, the division disbanded and Pilecki returned to Warsaw with Major Wlodarkiewicz. They founded the Secret Polish Army on November 9, 1939, and by 1940 it encompassed more than 8,000 men. The group joined the Union for Armed Struggle, which later became known as the Home Army.[3]

Auschwitz and The Pilecki Report

Witold Pilecki approached his superiors with his plan to gather intelligence at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Germany and form a resistance from inside. What occurred in the camp remained a mystery and many believed it to simply be a large prison or internment camp.

Witold Pilecki’s brave plan to infiltrate Auschwitz revealed to the world the atrocities occurring inside.

On September 19, 1940, he allowed German soldiers to catch him during a street roundup in Warsaw. He presented them his cover identity, “Tomasz Serafiński.” [4] He spent two days in the Light Horse Guards Barracks where guards beat them with rubber truncheons. [5] He then transferred to Auschwitz and was given inmate #4859. [6]

Pilecki organized the secret Union of Military Organizations (ZOW) which eventually merged with other underground groups in Auschwitz.[7] They provided news inside and out and, beginning in October 1940, sent reports to the Polish resistance in Warsaw. [8] He hoped for an assault by the Home Army on the camp as the Gestapo searched for ZOW members.[9] He decided to break out to convince them to invade and, on the night of April 26/27 1943, he escaped with camp documents to meet with Home Army Units. [10]

The Warsaw Uprising


 On August 25, 1943, he joined the intelligence department of the Home Army. He tried to convince them to invade Auschwitz, but they refused. In February 1944, he was promoted to cavalry captain and organized an underground resistance group in the Home Army to prepare against a Soviet invasion. On August 1, 1944, the Warsaw Uprising began and Pilecki joined the National Armed forces without revealing his rank. He helped the Choirboy II group fortify the “Great Bastion of Warsaw” for two weeks before it fell to the Germans. Pilecki went into hiding and spent the remainder of the fighting in Lambinowice and Murnau prisoner-of-war camps.[11]

Arrest, Execution, and Legacy

Witold Pilecki joined the 2nd Polish Corps in Italy after being released on July 9, 1945. There he wrote a book on Auschwitz. In September 1945, General Anders ordered Pilecki to covertly reenter Poland to gather information. He returned in October, but by 1946 the situation proved too futile and the exiled government recommended the Polish resistance members to escape or return to civilian life. Pilecki learned the Soviets discovered his cover in July 1946 and his commanders ordered him to flee. He refused and continued to document evidence of the Soviet imprisonment and execution of Polish soldiers.[12] The Polish Ministry of Public Security arrested him on May 8, 1947. They tortured him repeatedly, but he refused to give any information about the Polish underground resistance.[13] The farcical trial took place on March 3, 1948. On May 15, the court sentenced him to death with three others. Witold Pilecki was executed on May 25, 1948, in Warsaw’s Mokotów Prison.[14] He received the Order of Polonia Restituta in 1995 and the highest award in Poland, the Order of the White Eagle, in 2006.[15]

References

Bibliography

Lewis, J. E. (1999). The Mammoth Book of True War Stories. New York: Running Press Book Publishers.


Pilecki, W. (2012). The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery. United States: Aquila Polonica Publishing.

Świerczek, L. Rotamaster Witold Pilecki. Institute of National Remembrance.

Footnotes

  1. Świerczek, n.d
  2. Świerczek, n.d
  3. Świerczek, n.d
  4. Lewis, 1999
  5. Pilecki, 2012
  6. Lewis, 1999
  7. Świerczek, n.d
  8. Lewis, 1999
  9. Świerczek, n.d
  10. Lewis, 1999
  11. Świerczek, n.d
  12. Świerczek, n.d
  13. Świerczek, n.d
  14. Piekarski, K. (1990). Escaping Hell: The Memoirs of a Polish Underground Officer in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Toronto: Dundurn Press.
  15. Gazeta Wyborcza (2008, May 24). 60 lat temu zginął rotmistrz Witold Pilecki. Gazeta Wyborcza.

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