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This Week in Military History: September 15th - 21st

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September 19th: Witold Pilecki “Captured”

German troops rounding up Poles in Warsaw, 1941.German troops arresting Poles in Warsaw, 1941.


It's common knowledge that throughout WWII massive roundups and imprisonment of civilians by the German SS were appallingly commonplace. In Poland alone an average of 400 men, women, and children were taken per day during the Nazi occupation. Most were tortured, sent to concentration camps, and/or forced into slave labor or prostitution. Death was often the end result. On one fall day in 1940 the Germans arrested over 2,000 people in the capital city of Warsaw, including a man carrying papers identifying him as “Tomasz Serafinski.” They soon sent Serafinski, and others, to a large camp complex in the Polish town of Oswiecim. The town's German name would become synonymous for the camp itself and, later, the horrors and crimes of the Holocaust: Auschwitz.

The gates of AuschwitzThe infamous gates of Auschwitz.

Between May of 1940 and January of 1945 the Nazis sent roughly 1.3 million Jews, Poles, Catholics, LGBTQ persons, dissidents, and others to the camp, over a million of whom died in the gas chambers or from the conditions of life and work there. Even among these scores of brutalized and murdered individuals, Serafinski stood out as fairly unique for a few reason. His real name was Witold Pilecki. He was an officer in the Polish underground. And he was in Auschwitz on purpose.

Witold Pilecki in uniform, 1939Then 2nd Lt Witold Pilecki in his Polish Army uniform, 1939.

Pilecki was born in the town of Olonets on May 13th, 1901, in what was then the Russian Empire. As a young boy, his family moved to what is now Latvia's capital city, Vilnius, which was a part of Russia at the time. They fled when German forces occupied the city during WWI and resettled in the city of Oryol, but Pilecki moved back to Vilnius (then called Wilno) in 1918. There he joined the Polish Boy Scouts, which led directly to his enlistment in an anti-communist militia during the Russian Revolution. After Soviet forces took Wilno, Pilecki fought briefly as a partisan behind their lines before joining the Polish Volunteer Army for the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921. After the war he remained in Poland, started a family, and worked as a community activist and social worker.

Witold Pilecki and familyPilecki with his wife Maria, their son Andrzej, and daughter Zofia, sometime in the late 1930's.

When Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September of 1939 Pilecki, who had remained in the reserves and earned an officer's comission between wars, was called up to serve. Within days Polish troops were decimated to the point that Pilecki, then a second lieutenant, became second-in-command of an entire division. When Poland surrendered on the 27th Pilecki and his commanding officer, Jan Wlodarkiewicz, went underground and started one of the first resistance groups in Europe, the Secret Polish Army. It, like many such groups, would later be incorporated into the primary Polish resistance formation, the Polish Home Army.

Polish Home Army troops, 1944.Polish Home Army troops, 1944.

In 1940, little was known about Auschwitz beyond it being a large facility ostensibly used as a prison or internment camp. Rumors of further atrocities abounded, but none were confirmed or widely believed. Pilecki proposed to infiltrate the complex and collect concrete intelligence about its workings. His superiors in the resistance approved, provided him with his fake ID and, before long Pilecki (as Serafinski) was right where he wanted to be: in an old Warsaw military barracks being beaten with rubber batons by the SS while awaiting transportation to Auschwitz. There’s crazy, there’s tough, and there’s crazy-tough. Pilecki was all that, incredibly brave, and more.

Pilecki's prisoner photoPilecki's prisoner photos from Auschwitz, 1941.

Pilecki spent nearly three years at Auschwitz as prisoner number 4859. He started a resistance group, the Zwiazek Organizacji Wojskowej (Military Organization Union) or ZOW, that gathered intelligence, distributed food and clothing, and prepared for a potential uprising based around an Allied drop of arms and/or airborne units. Starting in October of 1940 he sent reports on the true nature of the camp to the Polish resistance. On June 20th, 1942 four Polish prisoners (Eugeniusz Bendera, Kazimierz Piechowski, Stanislaw Gustaw Jaster, and Józef Lempart) disguised in SS uniforms drove off in a car stolen from the camp’s commandant. Jaster, a ZOW member, carried with him a copy of Pelicki’s full, detailed report (over 100 pages in length) that he passed on to the resistance in Warsaw who, in turn, sent it on to the Allies.

The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland coverA brochure distributed to the Allies by the exiled Polish government compiled from a number of sources, including Pilecki.

Sadly, despite Pilecki’s report, the Allies continued to believe that most of the atrocities that constituted the Holocause were exaggerated. No plans were made to liberate or arm those imprisoned in the concentration camps. Nevertheless, Pilecki and his followers kept at it. In 1942, ZOW built a radio out of smuggled parts and broadcast information directly from Auschwitz until the Germans discovered and dismantled their transmitter. Shortly after, as the Germans increased their efforts to eliminate ZOW and the likelihood of the Allies supporting an uprising looking increasingly remote, Pilecki decided to break out. On April 26th, 1943, while working the night shift at a bakery near the camp, Pilecki and two other prisoners incapacitated their guard and escaped.

Home Army troops in combat during the Warsaw Uprising, 1944.Home Army troops in combat during the Warsaw Uprising, 1944.

Pilecki rejoined the Home Army and continued his resistance operations, including providing whatever help he could to the surviving ZOW members from the outside. When the Warsaw Uprising began on August 1st, 1944 he volunteered to join the fighting there. After several months of brutal urban warfare that destroyed a quarter of the already devastated city’s buildings, the Polish resistance units surrendered on October 5th. Pilecki once again found himself a prisoner of the Germans until he, and the rest of Oflag VII-A Murnau prison camp, were liberated by the US 12th Armored Division on April 28th, 1945.

A firefight erupts outside of the Murnau POW camp between American and Nazi soldiers. Prisoners in the camp are seen running towards or away from the barbed wire fence.
A firefight between American and Nazi guards outside of the Murnau camp during its liberation.

Unfortunately, the end of WWII was not the end of Pilecki’s struggle. It’s an often overlooked fact that Soviet Russia started the war as an ally of Germany and, as mentioned above, participant in the invasion of Poland. While they never matched the organized brutality of the Germans, the Soviets committed their share of atrocities against the Poles in the territory they conquered. Even after the USSR joined the Allies, the Polish resistance (Pilecki included) spent a fair amount of their energy combatting communist groups and the Soviets as well as the Nazis. But when the war ended and the Iron Curtain fell Poland, ruled by Soviet-backed communists, lay behind it.

Boleslaw Bierut, first communist president of Poland, with Joseph Stalin.Boleslaw Bierut, first communist president of Poland, with Joseph Stalin.

The Home Army, Pilecki included, remained steadfastly loyal to the exiled democratic Polish government. Undercover, he returned to Warsaw in October, 1945 to organize an intelligence network. Despite the Polish secret police (MBP) breaking his cover in July of 1946, Pilecki remained and continued his spy operations. He worked diligently to expose the Russian atrocities committed in Poland during the early years of the war and the continued persecution of Home Army veterans until his arrest on May 8th, 1947. For the third and final time, Witold Pilecku was taken prisoner.

Pilecki's prisoner photo, 1947.
Pilecki's prisoner photos from Mokotow Prison, Warsaw, 1947.

From there, things went as tragically and predictably as to be expected in the days of Stalin. Pilecki was tortured repeatedly but refused to give up any names. A show trial began on March 3rd, 1948 and was over by May 15th. Convicted of numerous charges, including espionage and planning to assassinate MBP personnel, he was executed by gunshot to the back of the head ten days later. When sentence was pronounced, he reportedly declared, “I've been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would rather feel joy, than fear.”

Pilecki at his trial in 1948.Pilecki on trial in 1948.

Poland would not be a republic again until 1989. In 1990, Pilecki was posthumously rehabilitated and given several posthumous awards over the next few years (in addition to the numerous awards for combat heroism he’d already received during the two wars he fought in), including Poland’s highest decoration: The Order of the White Eagle. His wife children all lived long enough to see their father exhonerated and praised. The Polish government also promoted him to colonel and built a giant monument in his memory.  All high honors befitting the mettle and courage of a guy who heard rumors of a man-made hell on earth and thought, “I’d better go in and check that out for myself.”

Monument to Colonel Witold Pilecki in Warsaw.Monument to Colonel Witold Pilecki in Warsaw.

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