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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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Written in terse ciphered briefs, and enumerating in code the names of some 200 of Pilecki’s agents, the report is a schematic and meticulous accretion of facts charting the camp’s transformation from a detention center for nettlesome portions of the Polish population into a brutal POW camp, and finally into the industrial killing machine and metonym for mankind’s capacity for evil. One salutary and pedagogical effect of Pilecki’s observations stems from the report having been written from an intelligence rather than memoiristic perspective, which allows the reader to see the camp’s internal mutation over the long term. While the Nazi killing methods morphed quickly, advancing from extemporaneous beatings and shootings to automated industrial slaughter in a few short years, the administrative ordering of the camp, and its specific levels of brutality and relative lethality, fluctuated over time.

Pilecki’s observations of the fate of the Roma and the Jews are particularly sympathetic, devoid of nationalism or condescension: He understood early on that a campaign of systematic annihilation was being waged. Yet the fraught, or mostly nonexistent, relationship between the Jewish and Polish inmates of Auschwitz has always been difficult to decode. Unfortunately Pilecki does not give us very much information on instances of cooperation between the two groups. Neither does he speak about the very real and equally complex relationship between the Polish nationalist and communist resistance cells within the camp. Persuasive arguments have been made (by Pilecki’s very great champion, historian Timothy Snyder, among others) that this was due to Pilecki’s prescient foretelling that the war against the communists would be the Poles’ next great battle. His smuggled reports to London, however, were among the first intimations of the scale of the catastrophe taking place. Pilecki intuited immediately, too, upon his arrival at the camp, the Nazi policy of systematically targeting the Polish intelligentsia and professional classes. These were in any case the classes least fit for life in the camp; “even possessing great knowledge,” he wrote, they “were unfortunately sometimes lacking in practical skills,” as well as “unused to physical labor and any old food.”

Above all else, Pilecki is most affecting when he is contemplating the fate of his comrades and the fraternal blood bonds forged among the conspirators, the sort of kindness that perhaps might only be cultivated in the face of the uttermost cruelty. “One had above all to be in good terms with every Pole,” he wrote, “if one was not a bastard, and take advantage of any kind of help and repay it in kind. For here the only way to live was cooperating in friendship and work … helping one another.” Egoists, he informs us dispassionately, did not last very long on their own in Auschwitz. Touchingly he writes also that despite being a military man he would like to have been considered among this group. “I missed them all,” he writes his superiors in London of his dead comrades.

A great part of the literary interest of the book lies in the contradiction between the sensitive, civil, and humane part of Pilecki’s character that we glean from the report and the unsentimental methods he and his cohort deployed in the ferocious battle for survival within the camp. Informants sent to destabilize the Polish resistance networks were ruthlessly and guilefully dealt with by the Poles, tricked into waiting in the “inoculation line” for what was actually a lethal injection administered by a sadistic SS doctor. The best work commandos were taken over by the Poles, and the jobs that facilitated survival were given to members of the conspiracy. Impressively enough, the Poles assembled a primitive biological warfare unit, wreaking havoc on the SS with typhoid-infected fleas they bred in their bunks.

After spending two and a half years in the camp, and having put together detailed contingency plans for an armed insurrection and for the camp’s liberation by force, and forgoing several chances for reprieve, Pilecki reached the conclusion that he had seen and learned enough. He and a few comrades engineered a daredevil escape while working in the camp bakery, and he was shot and wounded in an ensuing run through the fields and forests. The first resistance fighter he and his men met was the very same Serafinski under whose identity he had been operating in Auschwitz. (Serafinski was later arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo at the end of the war.) Arriving back in Warsaw like a ghostly specter, he made a plaintive and desperate case to his disbelieving superiors for an all-out attack on Auschwitz using a combination of partisan units, parachute drops, and Western air support. It was no use: His superiors argued the logistical impossibility of an assault on the camp. The parachute units did not exist, the camp’s garrison was too big, and air support was not forthcoming. Pilecki was heartbroken.

In August of 1944 Pilecki then took a leading part in the quixotic Warsaw Uprising (not to be confused with the previous year’s ghetto uprising). He commanded a platoon that held an important junction close to the Warsaw ghetto for the duration of the battle before surrendering to the Germans in early October. Taken as a POW to Murnau, Germany, he was liberated by the U.S. Army on April 28, 1945, and immediately rejoined Gen. Anders’ second corps in Italy as an intelligence officer with the secretive and elite Section 2 unit. Perhaps sensing that his luck and time were running out, he spent the summer hurriedly writing out the last version of the report, the one we now have.

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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