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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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The same indomitable force of personality that had compelled Pilecki to break into and out of the most brutal death camp ever erected by mankind led him compulsively back into Poland in the autumn of 1945, after the war had ended, to gather intelligence and set up resistance networks under Gen. Anders’ orders for the foreseen struggle against the Russians. He funneled critical intelligence back to the West, especially dealing with Russian duplicity. By early 1946 it had become apparent that the Communist government imposed by the Soviets was not about to collapse, and Pilecki took to the forests to rendezvous with the youth and the partisan units and convince them to disarm rather than spend years in the forest irrationally. Refusing demobilization orders from his superiors to leave Poland when it became obvious that his cover was compromised, he was arrested and horrifically tortured by the Communist secret police. At his show trial, he was charged with espionage and the preparation of armed assaults on the secret police. Pilecki stolidly denied the charges to the end and by all accounts carried himself regally and stoically into court even after his body and hands were mangled by his torturers. Future Prime Minister Józef Cyrankiewicz, who had been in Auschwitz concurrently with Pilecki, testified against him at his trial.

Pilecki was executed in the notorious Mokotőw prison on Rakowiecka Street on May 25, 1948, the whereabouts of his body undisclosed to his family and unknown for six decades. But after several false starts at his posthumous rehabilitation were quashed for ideological reasons, Pilecki’s reputation in Poland returned to its rightful status and is now unassailable and firm. Last year several hundred bodies of a mix of common and political prisoners summarily executed there were dug up at a mass grave believed to contain his remains. Pilecki’s 75-year-old son has been swabbed for DNA tests, and the Polish public has been captivated for the last half year by the announcements of the possible imminent identification of his remains. President Lech Kaczynski has awarded Pilecki Poland’s highest honor—the Medal of the White Eagle. The intense interest and reverence the Polish public holds for him is part of the process of recuperating the memory of theżołnierze wyklęci,” or “excommunicated soldiers,” those whose nationalist beliefs or aspirations made them unsuitable for a place in the heroic pantheon under the Communist regime.

And while we still lack a full-scale Pilecki biography in English, this January saw high-profile events at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. A 2006 Polish movie, The Death of Witold Pilecki, is a minor cult classic, and its rare screenings are packed in Los Angeles and elsewhere whenever it is shown.


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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

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