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Undercover at Auschwitz

World War II hero Witold Pilecki infiltrated the death camp and reported to the Polish high command

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Witold Pilecki’s official Auschwitz photo. “My number was 4859. The two thirteens (composed by the inner and outer digits) convinced my comrades that I would die; the numbers cheered me up.” (Pilecki Family & Aquila Polonica Publishing)
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Poland is often thought of as “the Christ of Europe” or “Christ of nations,” and the country sees itself as a victim of countless historical tragedies in which Poles are brutalized by their stronger, more aggressive neighbors. This view of history isn’t entirely wrong, though it has been almost comically obscured in the global imagination—as demonstrated most recently by President Barack Obama’s widely quoted malapropism in referring to “Polish death camps” when he awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom to the Polish World War II hero Jan Karski. In turn, the confusion of Poles with their wartime tormenters is cited by devout Polish nationalists as yet another example of their country’s eternal victimhood.

Still, the fact remains that the Nazi squelching of the Polish resistance makes the Western European experience of World War II look gentle by comparison. Poland’s wartime casualties accounted for 16 percent of the entire Polish population—a larger share of the population than in any other European nation, surpassed only by the destruction of the Jewish and Roma communities of Europe during the Holocaust.

In September 1939, as is well known, the Soviets and the Nazis rapaciously partitioned the fledgling Polish nation; the territory anchored by Lvov and Bialystok went to the Soviet Union, and the Nazis took the western territory surrounding Warsaw and Krakow, where Polish resistance networks soon began receiving rumors of ominous activities taking place in a camp outside the town of Oswiecem built to house POWs and political prisoners. Less well-known, though, is that in late September of 1940, a dashing 39-year-old cavalry officer named Capt. Witold Pilecki hatched an audacious plan to infiltrate and reconnoiter the camp—known as Auschwitzand—and report his findings to the Polish high command in London. Pilecki would spend two and a half years in Auschwitz, during which he would build up a resistance network of several thousand; he then broke out of the camp in an equally audacious manner and penned a series of intelligence reports. The final and the fullest of those reports, hastily written in the summer of 1945 as he fought with the Polish Gen. Władysław Anders in Italy, is now being published in English for the first time as The Auschwitz Volunteer. Banned from publication for decades under the communist regime, it is a work of supreme importance.


Though far less famous internationally than its Jewish counterparts, the Polish Auschwitz memoir is a well-established genre of particular import for Poles, defined by an attitude of moral simplicity, shock at Nazi and Soviet duplicity, patriotic earnestness, knightly preoccupation with honor, and a gallant romanticism. Not coincidentally, most of these books were written by members of the gentry or aristocracy. Pilecki himself was a scion of impoverished Nowogródczyzna gentry that had seen the wrong side of the 1863 uprising; he played the guitar and briefly attended art school in Vilnius between the wars. They also usually contain slight hints of the observer’s psychological detachment—something generally absent from Jewish memoirs.

For some time, my favorite of these was John Wiernicki’s War in the Shadow of Auschwitz. Many of Pilecki’s experiences in the camps run in tandem to reminiscences described by the Polish-English historian Józef Garliński in his memoir The Survival of Love: Memoirs of a Resistance Officer, which describes his war days as a Polish intelligence officer who marries his Irish girlfriend the day before mobilizing for the front and who is then arrested by the Gestapo. Garliński’s story is intimately interwoven with Pilecki’s, as he was the first one to find the manuscript of the Pilecki report stashed away in a Polish archive in London after the war. Garliński then used it as the backbone of his groundbreaking history of the minutiae of organized camp resistance—the 1975 best-seller Fighting Auschwitz, now out of print. Jarek Garliński, the historian’s son, has now completed his father’s work by translating the Pilecki report into English for publication by Aquila Polonica, a British-American boutique publishing house that specializes in bringing obscure and tasty Polish curios to the Anglophone world.

Fighting Auschwitz deployed Pilecki’s story as a framing device for telling the tale of Polish resistance within the camp. It introduced to the Polish and to the free world an undeniably romantic figure who walked of his own free will into a German roundup bound for Auschwitz. The book begins rather rapturously:

 … early morning of September 1940, when a man came out of a small building in a residential district of Northern Warsaw and briskly set out towards the centre of the city. … His name was Witold Pilecki; he was an officer of the 13th regiment of Uhlans. In his pocket he had a skillfully forged identity card in the name of Tomasz Serafiński; it had been made for a reserve officer who had escaped capture after the capitulation of Warsaw and who for some time had hidden in the flat which Pilecki subsequently lived in. Serafiński had left an insurance card behind him and the new lodger began to use it. Later other papers were forged to match it. … The idea was so daring that it was hard to accept at first. It was only after much insistence on Pilecki’s part, when it was evident that he was really prepared to carry through his plans, that his commander accepted the proposal.

Later, Garliński ruminated on the captain’s state of mind after his capture:

Now, when the first part of the plan had been realized, when he lay stiffening in discomfort on the wet sawdust, he could once again reflect on his intentions and think over the whole enterprise. He was still in Warsaw, only yards away from friends and freedom, but the heavy hand of the occupiers, which he had himself sought, pinned him to the ground. He no longer had any choice; already around him panted and groaned the men who would shortly become his fellow camp-mates and would, in all probability, leave their bones there. Had he done the right thing; would he have the strength of body and mind to survive; would he have the energy to fulfill his task? Two days later, after a few men had been released, the remainder were taken to Auschwitz.

Pilecki was included in one of the first groups of Polish prisoners shipped to Auschwitz, along with the future Foreign Minister of Poland Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, whose memoir of the war years was recently published in Poland. Thus, Pilecki was processed and transmogrified into prisoner No. 4859.

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Hershl says:

You write:

“Yet the fraught, or mostly nonexistent, relationship between the Jewish and Polish inmates of Auschwitz has always been difficult to decode.”

Why was this the case?

Wonderful article. One correction: you write that

Poland’s wartime casualties accounted for 16 percent of the entire Polish population—a larger share of the population than in any other European nation, surpassed only by the destruction of the Jewish and Roma communities of Europe during the Holocaust.

This is an odd statement, since over half of the 16 percent consisted of “the Jewish and Roma communities of Europe,” specifically Polish Jews (of whom 90 percent were killed). Perhaps 6 percent of the non-Jewish population of Poland was killed during the war. (The figures for Russia and Yugoslavia are probably comparable.)

Great man. Nice article.

There’s always been a lot of bad blood in this respect…the Poles kept killing Jews after the war, partly because a lot of Jews collaborated with the Communists. And the Poles think we act like we own the Holocaust….the Germans killed a few million Poles too, though not as many as Jews.

I sometimes think Americans’ lack of history knowledge is a good thing. No hundreds of years of grudges to hold.

Crossroads says:

Definition of a Hero……..

……..John 15:13……….
Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.

Piotr Muszynski says:

I must correct, that the Poles were fighting against the Russian Soviet occupants and their collaborators after the war, with no regard for their ethnic background.

Piotr Muszynski says:

Was this really the case? Considering the unprecedented level of solidarity and help expressed by the Poles to their Jewish brothers during the war (ex. tragic history of the Ulma family), so much that even the pre-war nationalists (Jan Mosdorf died in Auschwitz for helping the Jews) often changed their attitudes completely, I do wonder if there were any ethnic barriers in Auschwitz. Birkenau is another matter – Germans built if specifically for the Jews, I suppose there were no Poles there.

Piotr Muszynski says:
disqus_uTT9rXsklq says:

You will be always in our hearts “Rotmistrz” Witold Pilecki.


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Undercover at Auschwitz

World War II hero Witold Pilecki infiltrated the death camp and reported to the Polish high command