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.
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 Serafinskiunder 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.
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.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.