Undercover at Auschwitz
World War II hero Witold Pilecki infiltrated the death camp and reported to the Polish high command
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 the “żołnierze 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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